26 Feb 2014

Counting the cost of the Swiss vote to tighten immigration

On 9 February 2014 Switzerland approved by a wafer-thin majority a rightwing initiative to impose quotas on European Union citizens coming to work in the country. The result not only involves a change to the constitution, it also raises questions about Switzerland’s future relations with the EU.

The initiative ‘Against Mass Immigration’ was adopted by a very tight margin and written into Art. 121a of the Federal Constitution. Professor Thomas Cottier, managing director of the World Trade Institute, expounded the multiple causes and costs of the new provision at a lunchtime seminar on 24 February.

Describing the vote as a “wake-up call” for the government, Prof. Cottier said Switzerland is a de facto member of the EU. He argued that the legal provision is incompatible with existing obligations under the 1999 Agreement on Free Movement of Persons. Adopting it into the constitution does not mean it can override existing agreements in international law.

The provision can only be implemented to the extent that it is compatible with treaty law if it is not to endanger existing bilateral agreements that are vital to the Swiss economy.

And he issued a warning: “When we go to Brussels to negotiate, in return for the right to put a ceiling on the amount of foreigners coming here, we will have to give up things we were adamant about protecting: withholding tax privileges, banking laws agreeing to surveillance mechanisms, etc.”

Touching on the narrowness of the result, Prof. Cottier pointed out that the interests of a substantial minority (49.7%) needed to be taken into account. He also noted that the 24 percent of the population with foreign passports had been prevented from expressing their opinion, lowering the legitimacy of the result.

“Democracy is not about majority vote, but about deliberation and debate. Foreigners were not included in this vote,” he said.

A book in German on the Swiss-EU legal relationship by Prof. Cottier and IEW research staff will be published in March.

Powerpoint presentation of the lunchtime seminar