International

Switzerland votes on curbing immigration from EU nations

Posters of right-wing Swiss People's Party reading 'Enough is enough!' displayed in the Swiss federal parliament building [Peter Schneider/EPA]

Nearly 5.3 million Swiss voters will decide whether to annul a pact with the European Union on the free movement of people, an important test of attitudes towards foreigners who make up a quarter of the country’s population.

The right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) – the biggest in the parliament – has led the charge for Sunday’s referendum to take back control of immigration, echoing some of the arguments pro-Brexit politicians used in the run-up to Britain’s exit from the EU.

However, a gfs.bern poll found that 63 percent of respondents oppose the SVP proposal and 35 percent support it, suggesting voters want stability at a time of economic uncertainty during the coronavirus pandemic.

The SVP paints a gloomy picture of young foreigners supplanting older Swiss citizens, housing prices rising, schools and transport becoming overcrowded and construction running rampant.

Opponents say the plan would rob businesses of skilled workers and torpedo accords that enhance Switzerland’s access to the bloc’s single market.

Citizens of the EU plus Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein, which with Switzerland are members of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), made up 68 percent of the 2.1 million resident foreigners in the country in 2019. More than 450,000 Swiss citizens live in the EU.

While not an EU member, Switzerland is bound to the bloc through an array of intricately connected bilateral agreements.

Ending free movement from the EU is likely to topple other bilateral pacts on land and air transport, procurement, technical barriers to trade, and research.

If the SVP initiative passes, authorities would have one year to negotiate an end to the 1999 agreement on the free movement of people between Switzerland and the bloc.

2014 vote

The proposal goes even further than a similar measure, also backed by the SVP, that narrowly passed in February 2014, demanding that Bern impose quotas on the number of work permits issued to EU citizens.

That vote threw Swiss-EU relations into disarray, with Brussels warning that any curbs on immigration by EU citizens would put a whole range of bilateral agreements at risk.

ern struggled for years to find a way to respect the vote without permanently alienating EU neighbours.

After lengthy talks, an agreement reached in late 2016 stopped far short of an initial quotas plan, which Brussels had fiercely rejected.

Instead, Bern opted merely to require Swiss employers to jump through a few bureaucratic hoops before hiring from the bloc, and to prioritise Swiss job seekers, at least ostensibly.

The SVP condemned that compromise as a “betrayal” and launched its new initiative.

Votes on the SVP’s initiative and several other issues had been scheduled to take place in May but were postponed as coronavirus lockdown measures prevented campaigning.

Most Swiss vote in advance in the popular polls and referendums held in the country every few months, and ballot boxes generally open for just a few hours on voting day for those wishing to cast their vote in person.

Polls open at different times in different cantons, but will all close by midday (10:00 GMT), with initial results expected by early afternoon.