Lessons from the Swiss Referendum on Immigration for the EU

On Sunday 9 February, the Swiss people were called to vote upon restrictions on free movement of EU citizens in Switzerland seeking job opportunities. The referendum was intitiated by UDC and was passed by majority (50,4%), therefore turning a new page on EU-Switzerland bilateral relations. Is this a positive or a negative development after all?

No matter which political party initiated this referendum, the high level of participation as well as the width of endorsement of the proposition to impose quotas on newcomers in the country are going to bring some didactic lessons for the EU. The outcome of the referendum is not necessarily going to breach bilateral relations between EU and Switzerland, but to the contrary it is going to unveil for one more time how direct democracy works in the country and how many illusions EU decision-makers still have on the democratic capacity of the Union.

Lesson No.1

Whenever an issue of high or low politics emerges in Switzerland, the people is called to vote via the referendum process. A political party or a group of people are initiating the call for referendum, and once passed, it is brough into public debate. Whether the topic concerns the legal representation of animals before the court or the contruction of minarets in the country, experience shows that the Swiss people favors direct democracy. The outcome is always respected by all parts involved, and it is passed as constitutional law with the possibility of reconsideration to be always upon request. This political and participatory culture of public deliberation is something missing in the EU, especially for issues of wider concern (e.g. austerity politics; labor mobility policy; green energy & biofuels).

Lesson No.2

The reaction of the EU is expected to be ambiguous. EP President Mr. Schultz stated on Monday that the outcome of the Swiss referendum could bring some new developments on bilateral relations with the EU, not necessarily good ones. Nonetheless, it is vital to underline that from the outcome of the referendum the Swiss people clearly decided to protect their national economy from the major side effect of Eurozone’s economic crisis, which isĀ  the massive movement of jobless EU citizens in Switzerland. The country is already affected by the mass immigration of newcomers, being ranged from low-skilled to highly-qualified professionals, in all possible workfields: constructions, commercial and administrative positions, the health sector, self-employed. In all these workfields, the rate of incomers is almost surpassing the relevant unemployment rate per area, which accordingly leads to the following outcome: the increase of current unemployment, the increase of public spending for welfare benefits, and the pressure on lower wages to all scales of profession. In other words, the Swiss are deeply concerned about the prospective lowering of the working and benefit standards of their economy, that for tens of decades were well-preserved and prospered. And these concerns were expressed via this referendum, which in similar respect, could be brought as well in the EU public sphere. But it did not happen so far.

Lesson No. 3

Being outside of the EU institutionally, but having signed bilateral agreements with Brussels, Switzerland is in front of a major dilemma: whether to achieve more integration with the EU or preserve a compositional integration in the confederation. Geographically the country is in the middle of the EU, absorbing inflows from every possible direction. Therefore, if Switzerland were to choose more integration with the EU, it would be like adopting the side effects of the financial crisis. On the other hand, if it were to distance itself from the transnational deficiencies of the EU, it could at least precipitate the negative effect of economic turbulence. Similarly, the EU could launch an open debate about austerity politics, but it decided not to.

These lessons could nourish the debate inside the EU regarding the quality of the democratic capacity in the Union. But at the end of the day, this democratic (in)capacity proves why the EU is afraid to discuss it about and address efficiently. Sooner or later, as it happened with the wrongdoings of the monetary union, the EU will be obliged to cope with it.

8 Responses to Lessons from the Swiss Referendum on Immigration for the EU »»

  1. Comment by Elio PENNISI | 2014/02/11 at 17:03:07

    Thank you to have anticipated what could be my thought. The Swiss are proud of their “direct democracy” and fearful that, by joining the EU, they would loose this privilege – the authentic democracy that most of us would dream for. With this vote the Swiss have simply reacted to the pitfalls of the EU experience. I am not implying that everything the Union has done is wrong, the main fault of the EU is to have miscalculated priorities and have unintentionally favoured the corporate sector. Years ago I underwent the quota system to work there, I took this kind of “screening” as a matter of fact of a country caring about their citizens, I enjoied the welfare system and there wasn’t a need to lock cars and even house front-doors.
    Swiss bordering areas today are marred with burglars and the massive extra-EU immigration is disputing their cultural behaviour.

  2. Comment by evad666 | 2014/02/12 at 04:56:47

    Mrs Reding will severely punish you now.

  3. Comment by Daniel Schaubacher | 2014/02/12 at 14:11:58

    Excellent analysis. The EU may lose more than Switzerland if it were to act abruptly against a democratic non member State which is known to respect its obligations. We have three years to conduct negotiations. Let’s negotiate, paying attention to subsidiarity (and needs of small States) ! And to democratic legitimacy !

  4. Comment by Dimitris Rapidis | 2014/02/12 at 19:29:23

    Dear Elio,

    Thank you very much for your comment. Having lived in Switzerland in the past, I definitely agree with you.
    Meanwhile, the frivolity of addressing the outcome of the referendum by a great part of EU decision-makers implies a complete misundertanding, as if migration policy is a taboo for the EU, while europhobic parties endorsed the imposition of quotas.
    A genuine debate is truly missing in the EU – not only about migration, but for labor mobility, employment, social & economic policy.

  5. Comment by Dimitris Rapidis | 2014/02/12 at 19:32:50

    Thank you for your comment & I do agree with what you say. We do need to negotiate & incorporate the debate in the EU public sphere.

  6. Comment by Sergio Fonseca | 2014/02/13 at 07:44:59

    An Europe of quotas whatever its scope is a fragmented and lost Europe.

  7. Comment by Elio PENNISI | 2014/03/03 at 14:21:15

    Sergio, no one is evoking an Europe of quotas; Switzerland is not part of the EU as yet.
    Within the EU, however, you cannot deny that we have missed to conjugate citizen’s free-residence-settlement with health assistance cost (I am thinking of health tourism).
    I wonder if this problem can find a solution in: the host country asking a refund to the citizen’s country of origin for each health treatment. It can only work temporarily until the health/social system is unified at Euroarea level, by that reducing overall health cost!

  8. Comment by Adrian Lucas | 2014/03/04 at 23:02:02

    Switzerland’s direct democracy is incompatible with EU institutional arrangements on at least two accounts: firstly, the Swiss government is constitutionally bound to implement the provisions of the 9 February 2014 referendum against ‘mass immigration’, and it has 3 years to strike a new agreement with the EU regarding the free movement of people; secondly, Swiss direct democracy is, in a more general sense, incompatible with the EU’s ‘technocratic automaticity’.

    By incompatibility with the EU’s technocratic automaticity I mean the following: if the EU introduces a new law, Switzerland has to have the option not to adapt Swiss law to that new EU law, if Swiss direct democracy is against such adaptation.

    Swiss direct democracy is not something that the Swiss can vote away; Swiss direct democracy is constituting and not constituted. Direct democracy and representative democracy are two different kinds of fish, but what they have in common is that democratic accountability and actual decision-making take place at the same constitutional tier. The democracy of the EU is something else: optimistically it can be characterised as an indirect democracy, and as a balance of powers between a council (of ministers), a technocratic executive (commission), and a (European) parliament, but what is clear is that the democratic accountability and actual decision-making is not taking place at the same constitutional tier.

    The EU may need to adapt in both of two directions: members using the Euro currency probably need to move towards a Eurozone federation (banking union, fiscal union, political union, and federation Euro bonds), whilst members not using the Euro currency need to be able to re-nationalize or re-sovereignize. The EU is an experiment, and the Euro currency union is another experiment, and Swiss direct democracy yet another experiment, and diversity of experimentation is as important as biodiversity. Experimentation is the opposite of tying oneself down to any -ism, and science itself is the design of experiments.


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