Member and neighbour States

When Switzerland shoots itself in the foot

Affiche pour le "Non" au référendum suisse sur l'immigration du 09.02.2014 (Lafeepetee, Flickr)

Affiche pour le “Non” au référendum suisse sur l’immigration du 09.02.2014 (Lafeepetee, Flickr)

Some days ago, Swiss people voted by a narrow majority to limit immigration, following a UDC (Union démocratique du centre, Democratic Union of the Centre) party’s proposition mainly targeting European Union’s people applying to work and/or settle within the Helvetic Confederation.

Just after the outcome was published, the European Union and most of the Member States warned Switzerland that EU values and principles are not negotiable and Switzerland cannot pick up what it wants, that is to say enjoying the single market, and close its borders to EU citizens at the same time. It is now the duty of the Swiss federal government to find a satisfying solution, taking into account the will of the voters.

The debate took place in a quite special environment. While the Swiss economy is flourishing and the country has one of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe, immigration seems to become the main issue within a land that largely enjoys the single market despite (or thanks to) its special status. Indeed, the Swiss Confederation ratified some bilateral agreements with the EU to enjoy advantages from both the Single Market and being outside the EU, with some counterparts. For instance, to access the Single Market, it committed itself to open its market in a win-win spirit. In fact, Switzerland largely enjoys the borders’ abolition and free movement of its goods to get more competitive and available products and to boost its economy.

However, by approving the anti-EU and conservative populist UDC initiative by a very weak majority, Swiss people shot themselves in the foot insofar as they embarrassed the federal government who is not in a strong position to negotiate with Brussels. Indeed, so far, the step-by-step method seemed to be convenient for Switzerland and the EU because it was enjoyable for everyone. But, giving in the UDC simple and populist speech, Switzerland may lose a lot in the end. As the French journalist Jean Quatremer explained on his blog, Switzerland is bound by a special condition mentioning that if the country questions one of the deals made with the EU, the other agreements lapse. Switzerland makes 60% of its trade with the EU and Brussels apparently does not wish to spare Bern, all the more so as the UDC initiative was warmly welcomed by the European far-right leaders, from Marine Le Pen’s French Front national to Nigel Farage’s UKIP who hopes the recent Swiss vote inspires the British people who should have their say about the UK membership in the EU by 2017.

It’s probably for this reason that the main European leaders wished to clarify the situation with the Swiss government (which said it did not support the UDC populist initiative) quickly. Maybe one of the limits of the Swiss democratic and electoral system has been reached insofar as any passionate and framed debate may lead to very serious economic consequences for the country. For information: Brussels already announced it suspends the EU/Switzerland agreement about ERASMUS+ and research programs, and it’s just the beginning!

Gilles Johnson

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