On February 9, the Swiss voted on a popular referendum to limit the free circulation of citizens from European Union countries. The referendum passed with a slim majority—50.3% in favor—with French-speaking cantons and urban communes mostly voting against it and German-speaking cantons and more rural communes voting in favor of it. The referendum, which the Swiss government has three years to enact as law, will reintroduce immigration quotas. (Switzerland is not part of the European Union, but it has signed a number bilateral agreements with the EU.)
This weekend, the Swiss government refused to sign a free-movement accord with Croatia, the newest member of the European Union, citing the February 9 vote. In response, the EU announced that it would suspend negotiations with Switzerland on the country’s participation in the Horizon 2020 research program and its participation in the Erasmus exchange program for university students and researchers. Last week the EU had already suspended talks on a Swiss-EU electricity accord and more wide-ranging institutional discussions.
I think the vote was a mistake, and many of my Swiss friends, who are mostly from the French-speaking cantons, were disappointed. One—who is an elected official in his commune—wrote: “This grand party [Swiss People's Party] that cultivates fear annoys me. I don’t understand how the Swiss can participate in such stigmatization. To welcome strangers because we need them and according to quotas is to is not to welcome. It’s resource utilization. And if a foreigner takes my job, maybe it’s time for me to reevaluate or do better.”
In the American press, the general line is that the vote was carried by right-wing voters worried about national identity. That’s true an extent. But the vote was also motivated by a sense—right or wrong—that further integration in Europe does not help local farmers or local highly skilled manual laborers and that it is bad for community and local culture. The Swiss Minister of the Economy, Johann Schneider-Ammann, blamed a ”culture of excess” among the political and business elite and a lack of attention to “the common good” for the vote.
The initial response of the EU unwittingly reinforces the impression that European integration benefits the elite alone. Three of the four accords suspended—participation in the Horizon 2020 research program, Erasmus exchanges, and the Swiss-EU electricity accord—would have benefited highly educated, urban Swiss, not workers in small towns.
The idea that the vote against immigration in Switzerland pits the xenophobic, nostalgic right against a future-looking left (see this weekend’s New York Times) is unhelpful to the extent that it fails to address the real concerns—again, justified or not—of skilled laborers in wealthy European countries. This problem will continue to arise elsewhere in Europe—in England, Norway (which is part of the EEA, not the EU), France, the Netherlands—unless these fears are addressed in some concrete way.