In a decisive vote this Friday morning, the Swiss Parliament approved a controversial law to resolve the crisis caused by the February 2014 popular referendum to limit immigration from the EU. The referendum, suggested by the right-wing SVP/UDC party, aimed to restrict immigration from EU countries, and caused a 3-year crisis between Switzerland and the EU.
Switzerland’s participation in many EU programs is conditional upon the EU’s cornerstone policy of free movement of people. The move to challenge this free movement has created a great deal of uncertainty while also marginalising Switzerland’s critical relationship with Brussels, even more so in light of the possible precedent that any favourable treatment of Switzerland would set given the recent Brexit vote and impending Brexit negotiations.
This morning’s vote enacts a very limited set of rules that will require Swiss employers to seek to hire individuals who are registered as unemployed before engaging workers from the wider EU, however this will only apply to industries and sectors where the unemployment rate is above the national average. Furthermore, employers in these sectors only have to consider and interview the resulting candidates, there is no requirement to justify the decision of whether to retain them or not.
While this law is widely seen as an olive branch to Brussels and an attempt to keep the bilateral relationship intact while satisfying the legal requirements of the referendum, the EU must still decide whether the changes are acceptable. Inside sources suggest that the text signed into law is a version that has been informally signed off as acceptable, but we must await the EU’s formal reaction at a committee meeting on 22nd December to know Brussels’s final position.
In Switzerland the resolution of this situation has been widely welcomed by a business community who has been worried about the potential impact of the referendum on their extensive use of foreign specialists. In parliament, although the law was passed by a comfortable majority, two major Swiss political parties have expressed their disappointment with the result on political and constitutional grounds. It is very likely therefore that we will see another popular referendum in due course, but for now Switzerland has set its course and awaits the response from Brussels.