Two years ago, Switzerland exercised its freedom as a non-member of the EU and held a referendum on ‘mass immigration.’ By the slim margin of 50.3%, a majority favoured strict quotas on foreigners. To Brexiteers, this Swiss assertion of sovereignty may seem like an enviable model. But the Swiss themselves are having second thoughts. They now understand that accommodating free movement of people is the price for access to the EU’s valuable single market.
A survey in April and May by a Swiss political and social research organisation, GfS.Bern, found that if the 2014 referendum were repeated now, only 36% would vote to restrict free movement from the EU. Fully 47% would now be against restricting immigration, with 17% undecided.
Support for immigration quotas “has been dropping slowly but steadily since 2014,” says Lukas Golder, spokesman at gfs.bern. The poll was funded by the Pharmaceutical industry body, InterPharma.
“It’s not because warm feelings towards the EU have increased, that is certainly not the case. But there is a more realistic view now on what all of this means,” says Christa Tobler, a law professor at the University of Basel and an expert on Switzerland’s agreements with the EU. “Swiss people have seen very unpleasant consequences (of the referendum outcome).”
Among them was being swiftly and unceremoniously kicked out of the EU’s Erasmus Plus student exchange programme, and the EU’s science research programme known as Horizon2020, of which Switzerland had been a substantial beneficiary. As a world leader in research and innovation, expulsion was a blow to Swiss pride. The government scrambled to fund the student and science grants out of the national budget.
In an illustration of the perils of Britain’s EU referendum, most Swiss voters failed to see this coming. Student exchanges and scientific research were barely mentioned during the campaign, but have since shot to the forefront of Swiss consciousness. The public failed to anticipate that the EU could and would play hardball in ways anti-immigration campaigners had failed to spell out. “It was a shock, people are quite aware this is not good for Switzerland,” says Golder.
The referendum campaign was messy and unfocussed. Both sides were “trying to find anything in the kitchen to throw into the soup,” according to one EU diplomat in Bern. With so much noise and scaremongering, economic arguments were drowned out by assertions about the loss of national sovereignty, barbarians at the gate, and terrorists looking for targets.
The argument that carried the day, however, was that Switzerland was overcrowded. Almost a quarter of Swiss residents are foreign, compared with 12 percent in the UK.
The consequences of an anti-immigration vote were barely mentioned. The nationalist-conservative Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which proposed the referendum, insisted Switzerland would simply convince the EU to accept the outcome. Switzerland was an important economy that the EU would want to do business with, it argued; why would Brussels give Switzerland a poor deal in trade negotiations?
In fact, the EU seems ready to go beyond punishing Switzerland on student and science funding. The Swiss government has struggled to stitch together any kind of bilateral agreement with the EU that allows it to restrict migration. Now negotiations are on hold because of the British referendum. But with a February 2017 deadline looming to renew the bilateral trade agreements, concern is setting in in Bern. The going has been tough so far, and there is no deal in sight.
The SVP “always claimed we will be able to adapt the agreements with the EU, but that has proven to be wrong,” said Tobler.
What’s more, Switzerland must in practice submit to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, proving that another alleged sovereignty gain from being outside the EU is really a chimera. As part of Switzerland’s trade deal with the EU single market, it must respect the ECJ’s opinions on internal market law. Theoretically, these ECJ rulings are merely “recommendations.” In reality, Switzerland has to adapt its own legislation to EU law as the court interprets it.
“The internal market is the crown jewel of the whole EU project. The EU is offering participation graciously, so to speak, to third parties, under the condition that the union that has set this whole (single market) thing up, that union’s rules apply, institutionally and in substance,” said Tobler.
The shift in Swiss public opinion on immigration, combined with the difficulties of aligning the 2014 referendum outcome with Switzerland’s desire to keep trading with the EU, has meant a new Swiss referendum is inevitable.
For Brexiteers, meanwhile, two lessons stand out. The free movement of people will remain a requirement for single market access. As for absolute sovereignty, when the other side holds the cards, something must give.
Edited by Sebastian Mallaby