Switzerland has a strained history with the European Union – she is not a member of the EU yet benefits from certain bilateral agreements such as that of free trade.  The Swiss confederation thus is not legally bound to Brussels legislation and, following the referendum in February regarding immigration, offers a perfect example of a country benefiting from free trade and avoiding the free movement of people.

The February referendum for installing strict quotas on immigration into Switzerland was a popular initiative put forward by the UDC or Swiss People’s Party, in an attempt to put a stop to mass immigration from surrounding European countries. The referendum passed with 50.3 percent of the vote[1]. This caused backlash from European member states – labelling Switerzland as xenophobic and anti-European.  This is not the first time Switzerland has been internationally branded as an intolerant nation – the 2009 vote to ban the construction of minarets for instance caused a degree of outrage worldwide.

Imogen Foulkes, the BBC correspondent in Berne issued a statement that “Brussels sees the free movement of people as integral to participation in Europe’s single market,” as such the referendum invalidates Swiss-EU agreements on the free movement of people which has been effective since 2002.

Didier Burkhalder, the president of the confederation announced in May that a referendum would be held for the country to vote on the further pursuit of bilateral agreements. The European parliament warned Switzerland of consequences to the outcome of the vote preventing the free movement of people over European borders. Already, Swiss students and professors have suffered, as they can no longer partake in the European Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students or ERASMUS. Further sanctions are expected to befall on the neutral confederation.

Le Temps (a daily Swiss newspaper) headlined that “a period of great uncertainty with the EU is now opening”[2], this turned out to be more of a prediction than anything else, as the results of the European elections later proved.  Moreover, Tages Anzeiger (a Swiss-German daily newspaper) commented that the Swiss decision put Cameron under pressure, under pressure to follow suit perhaps. Additionally, Switzerland managed to achieve what UKIP’s manifesto strives to accomplish – to regain control of British borders.

UKIP’s huge success in gaining seats in the European parliament in the May elections has been headlining national news for weeks. UKIP is renowned for its euroscepticism and wariness of unemployment and immigration. In its manifesto for the European elections,UKIP leader Nigel Farage declared that he would “work for the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the big political project that is the EU”. Such resolution to break ties with the European Union is labelled by politicians and scholars as “eurosceptic”. Eurosceptics traditionally perceive their nation-state to be weakened by its integration into the wider political and economic project that is the European Union. This school of thought also includes the view that the European Union is undemocratic and increasingly bureaucratic.  The point that will be focused on is the contract between all EU countries to enable the free movement of people. The common feeling is that immigration not only drives down salaries due to the influx of foreign labour, but also strains sectors such as “housing, health and education”[3].

UKIP’s sweeping success in the election was described as a “short-term eruption – a reaction above all to the hard economic times since 2008” in The Independent, this was countered by The Times which stated that growing resentment stemmed from “remote EU institutions, and freedom-of-movement laws”. These two opposing statements beg the question – will UKIP’s appeal and that of many other European states (as was apparent in the election results) persist?

Will immigration quotas such as those imposed on Swiss borders really aid the country’s economy and businesses in the long run? It is worthwhile to note that such buffered policies restrict the number of employable individuals to businesses and the state based on their passports – preventing a number of skilled individuals from entering the Swiss workforce. Is this what awaits all other European member states who are seeking to reinforce their immigration policies?

Wolfgang Schaüble, the German finance minister commented on the situation in Switzerland; “this shows that in this globalised world, people feel increasingly uneasy with regards to the complete freedom to [immigrate].”[4] This is not solely applicable to the Swiss confederation but to many countries on the continent, including the United Kingdom and Denmark, all of whom seek to reconsider the free movement of people, perhaps marking the end of the European Union as it is known.

 

Sources:

[1] BBC News 9th February 2014

[2] BBC News 10th February 2014

[3] BBC News 9th February 2014

[4] Le Monde 9th February 2014 (Liberally translated from French by the author)