A negative vote

February 11, 2014 - 6:35:05 am
Switzerland’s vote to end mass immigration has shocked Europe. A narrow majority of voters shocked Europe over the weekend by approving new restrictions on the number of immigrants allowed to live and work in the country. One of the notable features of the referendum, introduced by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, is that it split Switzerland across linguistic lines -- the French-speaking west opposed the measure while the German-speaking East supported it.

As expected, European leaders and experts are considering the consequences of the vote. First of all, the vote is a sign of rising anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe and it will only help accelerate the process. All over the continent, there is a growing and dangerous tilt towards the right. That a country like Switzerland should choose to embrace anti-immigrant sentiment is worrying. Already, the vote has been applauded by anti-immigrant parties in other EU countries.

Second, the results threaten to torpedo a series of accords with the European Union crucial to the Switzerland’s economy because the bloc has pledged to review relations with the country as a whole. Geographically, Switzerland sits at the heart of the 28-member EU, but it opted not to become a member citing its longstanding tradition of international neutrality. Instead of becoming a full member, it negotiated accords with the bloc to deepen economic relations, and among them is signing up to allow free movement of EU citizens. In response to Swiss voters’ decision to restrict EU immigration, the EU executive said EU-Swiss relations must be considered “as a whole”, in line with earlier statements saying Switzerland cannot pick and choose which accords to implement. 

The vote could negatively impact the future of free movement across the continent’s national borders. Switzerland is part of the continent-wide passport-free zone known as the Schengen area. The new quotas will pose a challenge to Schengen since the caps will also apply to EU citizens who previously enjoyed uncontrolled travel and working rights in Switzerland under the open borders system.

The depth of anti-immigrant sentiment in Switzerland is a bit confounding, considering that a quarter of its residents being foreign born. The country has the lowest unemployment rate in Europe and its economy is among the strongest in the region. If a country like this could be so anti-immigrant, what about those which are in the throes of economic turmoil?

As stated, the European Commission needs to take a look at the whole relationship with Switzerland. The Swiss must be prepared to face the consequences of their decision. As Viviane Reding, deputy chief of the EU’s executive, said Switzerland could not expect to keep the benefits of free trade without accepting freedom of movement.  “That is not possible. You take them all or you leave them all.”