Take a look at a map of the European Union and you’ll see a Switzerland-shaped hole at its heart. The Swiss are not members of the EU, but it surrounds them on every side. They have had to learn to live with their powerful neighbour, but in a vote on Sunday they took a step back from an ever‑closer relationship. Suddenly the hole looks a bit bigger and deeper than it did before.
Sunday’s referendum was about re-introducing immigration quotas for EU citizens in Switzerland. It was approved, but only just, with 50.3 per cent of those who voted saying Yes, despite the government, parliament and most business leaders campaigning against it.
The only one of Switzerland’s many political parties in favour was the Right-wing Swiss People’s Party, which launched the initiative as part of its populist anti-immigration platform. Its previous triumphs included deporting foreign criminals and banning the building of new minarets.
The People’s Party argued that the annual 1 per cent increase in Switzerland’s population is unsustainable. This wave of immigrants, largely from the EU, is putting too much pressure on housing, transport, hospitals and the welfare system. Opponents countered that Switzerland’s healthy economy – a budget surplus and 4 per cent unemployment – depends on foreign workers and Swiss access to the European single market. It’s a debate that is echoed in many EU countries, especially Britain.
There are certainly a lot of foreigners in Switzerland: 23.3 per cent of the population of eight million is not Swiss, one of the highest percentages in Europe. About a fifth of these “foreigners” were actually born and grew up in Switzerland, but must still apply for citizenship under the strict naturalisation laws. And overall, about two thirds of the immigrants come from EU countries.
In many sectors, such as the hospitality industry, health care and construction, the percentage of foreign workers is far higher than the national average. Jobs that the Swiss can’t or won’t do are filled by foreigners, as has often been the case in Switzerland. The famous railway tunnels under the Alps were built by Italian labourers, many of whom died while digging underground.
Under the new proposals, employers will have to give preference to Swiss nationals and there will be quotas on the number of foreigners allowed in. That will include the many thousands of cross-border workers who live in France or Italy but work in Switzerland.
But the crucial aspect of this vote is not the immigration quotas themselves, as no maximum levels have been stipulated and the Swiss government has three years to come up with a workable system. The part that has caused consternation, and excitement, both at home and abroad is the effect on the free movement of people within Europe, which is one of the EU’s fundamental principles. And one the Swiss signed up to in 2000.
In another very close vote in 1992, the Swiss People’s Party stopped Switzerland joining the European Economic Area. Instead, the Swiss negotiated a series of bilateral agreements with the EU, covering everything from the single market to visa-free travel within the Schengen area – and free movement of people. In theory, a vote against one part of the bilaterals puts all the agreements in jeopardy.
The Swiss government has to stand by the referendum result, so it will now have to convince Brussels that Switzerland wants to keep its relationship with the EU stable, despite the real prospect of quotas and a renegotiation of the free movement of people. It’s not an easy balancing act, given that the EU is not too partial to the Swiss cherry‑picking what they want and immigration is a divisive issue for many of its own members. How the EU handles the Swiss dilemma could influence both the forthcoming European elections and the stance of other governments.
For Switzerland, there is also the economic aspect of any fallout: the EU is its main trading partner by a long way. Whereas only 6.6 per cent of EU foreign trade is with the Swiss, Switzerland depends on its neighbour for 62 per cent of its exports and 79 per cent of its imports. Anything that hampers Swiss access to the single market could have serious consequences for the national economy. The normally careful, pragmatic Swiss have called all that into question; those who voted Yes are clearly hoping that they can have their (chocolate) cake and eat it.
All of that has been heavily debated in Switzerland over the last few weeks. And the closeness of the vote shows how divided the Swiss are when it comes to the dual questions of immigration and relations with Europe.
The age-old division between the linguistic regions surfaced again very clearly on Sunday. All the French‑speaking cantons voted No, while only three of the German-speaking ones did. The Swiss call this the Röstigraben, or the “fried-potato ditch”, between the more liberal, pro-European west and the conservative, German‑speaking heartland, plus in this case the Italian‑speaking canton of Ticino.
Interestingly, those areas with the most immigrants, and therefore with the most overcrowding, typically voted against the proposals. This urban-rural divide is as stark as the French-German one and together they threaten Switzerland’s system of consensus politics.
From its very beginning in 1291 Switzerland has been a collection of communities that have chosen to stand together. It is a country that has overcome geographic, linguistic, religious and political divisions that destroyed many other nations. But those divisions still lie beneath the surface and unity can sometimes feel fragile. Finding a compromise that suits the majority is usually a national obsession, despite a federal structure where cantons and communities wield a lot of power. Direct democracy, where the people have the final say, is the bedrock of this system.
It is this aversion to confrontation that has given Swiss politics the reputation of being as exciting as watching paint dry. Alongside that are the clichés of punctuality, neutrality, greed and efficiency – but not all the cheese has holes, the trains don’t always run on time, and the banks are cleaning up their act in the face of international pressure. Change is a slow process in a land where control and conformity are the norm. But even Switzerland has to change sometimes.
The Swiss have always managed to make the best of a bad situation. Having no natural resources other than wood and water, for centuries they hired their men abroad as mercenaries; the Pope’s Swiss Guard is the last vestige of that trade. As for neutrality, that isn’t always written in stone – the Swiss arms industry exports its weapons to more than 70 countries; morality sometimes takes a back seat to money.
And they have always stood up to outsiders. There’s nothing the Swiss hate more than being told what to do, whether by Brussels or Bern. The EU is just the latest in a long line of external irritants, from the Habsburgs to the Nazis, none of which can be allowed to undermine Swiss independence. But this is a battle the Swiss have chosen. Eurosceptic voters in other countries can only look on in envy, wishing that they, too, could have a say on immigration.
This vote does not prevent Europeans from moving to Switzerland. Nor should it affect the 450,000 Swiss living in the EU. But it will shape Swiss relations with Europe for many years. The big question in Switzerland is perhaps not how Brussels will react, but who will clean the houses, pick the fruit and look after the elderly if the foreigners don’t? Not forgetting that it would take 20 years to train enough Swiss doctors and engineers to fill the gaps left by absent foreigners.
As for the rest of the world, maybe now it will question the stereotype of Swiss politics being as boring as the people. Sunday’s vote has shown that neither is true.
Diccon Bewes, a writer, traveller and chocolate lover.