In four weeks’ time Switzerland will vote on a new initiative to stop mass immigration. As the EU extends eastward, Switzerland is attempting to regain control.
The initiative is the brainchild of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which has been responsible for similar masterstrokes in the past. Some of you may remember the deportation plan that depicted foreigners as black sheep in 2007, or the infamous anti-minaret campaign in 2009.
Sadly, ruses like this often win popular support because they play on shared worries about foreign invasion, job shortages and losing control over the country’s sovereignty. This time, the SVP is arguing that Switzerland has reached its maximum capacity with eight million people and is calling for quotas on residence permits being granted to foreigners.
The opposition calls it the “isolation initiative”. It says that a Yes vote would harm the county’s economic competitiveness because sectors such as manufacturing, healthcare, academia, gastronomy and agriculture are dependent on workers from abroad. Further, it would be a reversal of the current system and could jeopardise the bilateral agreements and relations with the EU.
A less tangible but very worrying side effect of an initiative such as this is the damage it does to Switzerland’s image internationally. If Switzerland wants to participate in a global dialogue it cannot shut the world out but must play an active role in finding solutions to major global challenges – including migration.
The Swiss are given more opportunities to vote than any other population in the world. The results of these votes might give the impression that the Swiss are less tolerant than their European neighbours but this is not true. It is simply that other countries don’t uphold the system of direct democracy; governments, not citizens, make the decisions.
Switzerland’s Federal Council recommends the rejection of this “Stop mass immigration” initiative. Many powerful forces, among them the farmer’s union and economic associations, are also against it. But when the Swiss people go to the ballot boxes on 9 February, I certainly hope that the scaremongering by right-wing populists will be roundly defeated by a majority more interested in the long-term future of the nation. A future in which Switzerland is seen as a serious political and economic partner – all around the world.
Isabel Käser is a researcher for Monocle 24.