Swiss face EU backlash over curbs on immigration

Close referendum result in favour of halting mass influx of EU workers triggers a review of ties by Brussels and threat of restrictions on trade

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 February, 2014, 10:31am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 February, 2014, 12:25am

Switzerland has voted to impose curbs on European Union immigrants, in a nail-bitingly close referendum, which sparked warnings from Brussels that it would review EU ties with the Alpine country.

Final results of the vote on Sunday showed 50.3 per cent backed the "Stop Mass Immigration" plan pushed by right-wing populists.


The fallout from the result could sink the country's raft of deals with the EU, including on the economic front.

Switzerland is ringed by EU member countries and does the bulk of its trade with the 28-nation bloc, but has refused to become a member.

The European Commission said it would assess EU ties with Switzerland, raising the prospect of restricted trade and other punitive measures.

"The EU will examine the implications of this initiative on EU-Swiss relations as a whole," it said in a statement.

The people have taken back their destiny over immigration

Wolfgang Schaeuble, the finance minister of Germany, which is Switzerland's top trade partner, said the result "is going to create plenty of problems for Switzerland in a host of areas".

But he said it was also a warning about concerns over European globalisation. Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter plans to tour European capitals to explain the vote and seek a solution, starting with Berlin.

"The people are sovereign, and a healthy system doesn't force the public to follow political authorities with outsized powers," Burkhalter said.

The Swiss government and economic lobby groups had campaigned against the plan for immigration curbs, fearing the EU backlash. But under Switzerland's system of direct democracy, voters have the last word on a huge range of issues.

The French-language newspaper Le Temps noted how French-speaking areas and larger cities voted against the immigration curbs, while German-speaking and rural areas generally voted for them.

Hundreds of people demonstrated against the referendum result in the capital Bern and in Lucerne. "We are ashamed," shouted protesters in Bern.

The Swiss government said it would examine over coming weeks how to "recast relations" with the EU, but stressed that current immigration rules would remain in place until the new ones were drawn up.

The vote obliges the government to renegotiate within three years a 2007 deal struck with Brussels that gave most EU citizens free access to the Swiss labour market.

It was one of a series of accords reached in 1999 after five years of talks that were seen as a way for Switzerland and the EU to enjoy access to each other's markets without Switzerland having to opt for full EU membership.

But Brussels has warned that Switzerland cannot cherry-pick from the binding package of deals, which were themselves approved in a 2000 referendum.

Besides free movement of labour, the pacts include equal access for Swiss and EU firms to public procurement tenders, smooth trade in farm goods, air transport and other sectors.

Such fears failed to faze the Swiss People's Party (SVP), which piloted the referendum and claims the country has been swamped by migrants.

"The people have taken back their destiny over immigration," said party idealogue, Christoph Blocher, while leader Toni Brunner hailed the vote as "a turning point in our immigration policy".

The SVP says that with 80,000 EU citizens arriving per year - far more than the 8,000 predicted before the rules were liberalised - the nation of eight million needs to apply the brakes.

It claims EU migrants undercut Swiss workers' salaries and the influx has driven up rents, stretched the health and education systems and overloaded the road and rail networks.