Switzerland’s February 2014 referendum, which voted in favour of restricting immigration from EU countries, has undoubtedly polarised the country. Proposed by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), the referendum narrowly returned a ‘yes’ vote. However, the country may receive a ‘do over’ opportunity, as a group of Swiss citizens collected the requisite 100,000 signatures that would allow the issue to go to a second referendum, subsequently annulling the proposed quotas.
The Swiss government has announced that it will respond to the possibility of a second referendum by the end of October. This follows increasing pressure from both Swiss citizens and EU officials for Switzerland to come to a resolution before the self-imposed February 2017 deadline to implement measures. Before the Swiss government announces whether it will recommend that voters should back or reject annulling the previous referendum, Swiss President Johann Schneider-Ammann will meet with European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, in Brussels today (28th October).
The meeting between Schneider-Ammann and Juncker may result in more conclusive decisions for Switzerland’s future. So far, the lack of commitment to any clear resolution has only created further uncertainty. Last month, in a concession to the ‘yes vote’, Swiss lawmakers approved a lighter proposal thereby avoiding implementing any definitive actions. While the newly approved plan will not introduce the same strict quota scheme that the SVP is hoping for, it will promote better rates of employment for Swiss nationals, as the proposal stipulates that job vacancies must first be advertised with local unemployment centres before going elsewhere.
Many commentators have criticised this proposal as an evasion of addressing the looming February 2017 deadline. While the outcome will be far from what the referendum had hoped to achieve, it is yet another indication of the attempts of Swiss officials to placate both supporters and opponents of the immigration measures.
This appeasement comes as little surprise, as the Swiss government is reluctant to impose any measures which could threaten the country’s economic treaties with Brussels. Switzerland’s bilateral agreements with the EU are critical to its economic survival, however the deal negotiated in the 1990s which afford the country its access to the EU market contained a provision guaranteeing citizens of EU countries the right live and work in Switzerland. Imposing quotas on immigration could create repercussions for these trade agreements, with the cancellation of these treaties leading Switzerland to suffer an estimated 32bn-franc a year in losses - a threat that the Swiss government is clearly keen to avoid.
Some sectors in Switzerland have already seen ramifications from the immigration vote, with Swiss Universities already reporting that they have been locked out of EU research programmes. Switzerland must carefully consider its next move, as the EU may approach the subject of Switzerland’s position on immigration with caution. The EU will be mindful of avoiding any agreements which could set a precedent for Brexit negotiations, particularly as Switzerland was heavily referenced by pro-Brexit campaigners in support of the UK’s referendum.
There remains a great deal of uncertainty around Switzerland’s next steps, with many officials, residents and workers questioning why action is yet to be taken, and exactly what the country is planning on doing. As February 2017 swiftly approaches the Swiss government is under more pressure than ever to come to an agreement, or to decide whether it will press ahead with a second referendum. In the meantime, we wait alongside the rest of Europe in anticipation, eagerly awaiting news on how the government will address the issue on an increasingly short deadline.