Swiss immigration referendum: Switzerland vs the EU

Swiss referendum on immigration was won by “Yes camp” by tiny margin.


1. Did you expect such close result? Can we say the the country is somehow divided or not, and why?

2. What kind of reaction do you expect from the EU? How should the EU react in your opinion?


Alexandre Afonso, Lecturer in Politics, King’s College London

1. I did not expect such a result, as the last polls had indicated an advantage for the « no », but the yes had been building up in recent weeks in apparently. This comes as a surprise on the one hand because this is the first time that Swiss voters do not follow the recommendation of the government in a vote that is related to the EU since December 1992, when the entry in the European Economic Area had been refused by 50.2 of voters (also a close vote). There seems to be a movement of backlash from citizens against free movement, which was introduced in 2002, in spite of a good economic situation and low unemployment. The radical right SVP is now the biggest party in parliament by far.

2. Nobody really knows what will happen now. The government has three years to renegotiate an agreement, but I don’t see the EU accepting a system of quotas, as argued by commissioner Lazslo Andor, or limiting the rights of EU citizens in switzerland, for instance by limiting the right to family reunion. In the light of event experiences with EU countries regarding taxation and banking secrecy, it doesn’t look very good for the Swiss government. I don’t think the EU wants to be give up on its economic relationships with Switzerland, but it may be losing its patience.

Pascal Sciarini, Professor of Swiss and Comparative Politics, University of Geneva

1. The Yes vote was not unexpected: an opinion poll carried out two weeks ago showed that the yes was increasing. While there was still a majority for the no, the trend in the public was favorable to the yes. And here we are, with a very tiny majority for the yes. The country is certainly divided. In particular, the vote shows a rural-urban cleavage, with big cities voting no and the countryside voting yes (which is somehow paradoxical since there are far more foreign migrants in cities than in the countryside; in that sense the vote was not only about immigration, but also about identity). There is also a difference between German-speaking and French-speaking cantons, but the difference is weaker than the rural-urban cleavage.

2. The vote complicates further the relationships between Switzerland and the EU. I guess the EU will repeat that the free movement of persons is a fundamental right and a centerpiece of the “acquis communautaire” and, therefore, non-negotiable. It is thus very likely that the vote will lead to the cancellation of the bilateral agreement on the free movement of persons and, therefore, to the cancellation of all bilateral agreements signed in 1998 between Switzerland and the EU.

How should the EU react? It is up to the EU to choose how to react, but I would not be surprised (nor shocked) if the EU becomes intransigent vis-à-vis Switzerland.

Clive Church, Emeritus Professor of European Studies, Centre for Swiss Politics, University of Kent

No, I expected a victory for the No campaign because that is what the polls were saying. And yes, the country has always been divided on the European issue but normally pragmatic but sceptical Swiss have blocked the Europhobic tendencies of the SVP etc This time they failed to do so, by 19,500 votes, mainly because it was seen as an immigration issue and not as an EU issue though this is really what it is about.

2. The EU has made it clear that it will not tolerate any interference with free movement. It should try not to be too rude or unhelpful, but the Swiss electorate has essentially rejected its existing deals with the EU and will have to accept what comes from doing this. They will have to put their interests where their votes went. The EU is unlikely to move on the idea recently put to them by Switzerland, which has not received any answer yet and it is unlikely to agree to renegotiate treaties which took ten years to agree and in which the EU would have little to gain and in which little credence can be put on the ability of Swiss negotiatiors to deliver. The vote was also one of no confidence in the government by the Swiss, I suspect Brussels will also feel much the same.

Paul Adams, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg

1.  Given the nature of the Swiss population and politics I am not surprised that the vote was so close and do believe that Switzerland’s electorate is quite divided over a range of issues but especially those of immigration and EU relations.

Switzerland’s fundamental divisions are along lines of rural and urban populations which also correlate fairly strongly to language. From the results I have seen, the referendum passed in the dominantly more rural German and Italian-speaking cantons in the central and eastern parts of Switzerland while it was defeated in the French-speaking western cantons and the more urban French and German-speaking (or bilingual) ones such as Bern, Basel, and Zurich.

This is pretty typical of Swiss referendum such as those on United Nations membership and others. There was slightly higher than usual turnout for this vote versus other recent referenda so that might have shifted the popular vote just enough to get a majority (of votes and cantons, many Swiss referendum must not only have a majority of votes but also carry in a majority of cantons, having to pass both thresholds).

Going back to past votes on EU and EEA membership (1992), UN membership, immigration issues, and Swiss-EU Bilateral treaties (1999, 2004), this vote fits well within the previous schisms in Switzerland on the big issues relating to increased integration with Europe and the world versus attempts to keep Switzerland more isolated from such international trends.

2. I believe this is going to be very difficult for the European Union to tolerate and it will significantly endanger greater efforts of cooperation between Switzerland and the Union. There was already some existing tension over the last few years regarding the current and future nature of Swiss-EU bilateral relations. These bilateral agreements (numbering nearly 120 separate agreements) have been considered by many scholars and EU legal experts to be the most complex and comprehensive set of treaties that the EU maintains with any other state.

However, since 2010 the Swiss-EU bilateral arrangement has become imperiled by increasing criticism from the EU in regards to the bilateral nature of the relationship. While Switzerland sought a new round of talks on Swiss-EU relations, dubbed Bilateral III, the EU seems less enthralled by such proposals.

In late 2010, EU foreign ministers essentially called for major revisions of the relationship between the EU and Switzerland explicitly stating that the system of bilaterals had reached unsustainability. However, by early 2011 European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, after meeting with Swiss Federal President Micheline Calmy-Rey, had suggested that differences had been mostly set aside and that new and more streamlined talks would commence between the EU and Switzerland.

However, by mid-2012 increasing frustration of the EU commission grew as the complexity of the negotiations started to bog down on issues of corporate tax standardization amongst the Swiss cantons and other issues which ultimately led the EU to freeze Switzerland out of EU transport and energy reform debates.

By January 2013, there had been some improvement to the diplomatic language between Bern and Brussels but without much concrete outcome. The 2012 decision by Switzerland to limit migration from eight Eastern European members of the EU has added additional complexity to EU demands from Switzerland towards integration of the single market.

This decision will make matters far more difficult between the EU and Switzerland. The movement of workers is a fundamental element of the Swiss-EU bilateral arrangement. As the language of the referendum states Switzerland will have to renegotiate its bilateral accord with the EU on the free movement of people within three years or revoke it. The likelihood that the EU will want to prioritize renegotiation is fairly low. If revoked in three years, it is unlikely that the EU would continue to leave the other elements of the bilateral agreements untouched.

I think this is a disaster for Swiss-EU relations in the short term and a major barrier to maintaining the bilateral system, which was already under criticism from Brussels, into the long term future.

So, overall, I think this referendum is somewhat typical of the kinds of political and social divisions in Switzerland. It perhaps is more surprising because it does seriously threaten to imperial relations with the EU which may likely hurt Swiss trade, investment, tourism, and other economic relations. Given that the EU was already less than enthusiastic about negotiated a new set of bilaterals, the need to renegotiate the existing set is very unlikely.


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