If only May had learnt from Swiss before going to Davos

by Denis MacShane | 19.01.2017

The irony of Theresa May choosing Davos to make her first foreign defence of taking Britain out of Europe is that the Swiss are going in exactly the opposite direction. Three years ago in a referendum in Switzerland on immigration, the Swiss narrowly voted to ban Europeans entering to work in the country.

A quarter of the Swiss population is European or foreign born and sectors like tourism, construction, old age care depend entirely on EU workers inside the country or those on Swiss borders who cross freely to work for Swiss firms before returning home to France, Italy or Germany. Brussels politely but firmly told the Swiss that if Berne did indeed impose discriminatory measures against Europeans then access to the Single Market would be lost.

The rightwing nationalist Swiss People’s Party had made its name as anti-EU but it is funded by Swiss business and business leaders made clear that losing access to the Single Market was economic suicide.

In the debate over free movement few have examined the case for internal controls on immigration rather than external controls like demanding work permits, quotas, or not allowing any European into the UK without a job offer in writing. These protectionist measures date from decades ago but have resurfaced as politicians, Labour as much as Tory and UKIP, have interpreted the Brexit vote as a call to shut the door to Europeans.

So the Swiss came up with a way of controlling immigration based on internal controls rather than reverting as May seems to want to do to archaic work, resident and travel visas and permits with its cumbersome bureaucracy. These internal controls are based on a requirement in some cases for firms to advertise posts with local job centres. Although EU workers can go to the job centres, it’s not a simple matter to hang around in Switzerland waiting for work given the high rents and requirement for residents to register with the authorities. The compromise has been accepted by Brussels.

Now Austria’s social democratic chancellor Christian Kern has made a similar suggestion for controlling EU migration: to let local employers hire Austrians before other EU citizens, unless there are no suitable candidates. Next year Austria goes to the polls. The strong showing for the far right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) in December’s presidential election means the social democrats need to regain working class votes.

Advertising jobs locally isn’t the only type of internal control that fits within the EU rules. Qualification requirements for particular jobs and ID checks on social security contributions are other options. This could have been a model for the UK instead of directly confronting the EU by imposing cold war era external controls on workers from Europe who want to add to the British economy.

But May has decided to reject the Swiss model in favour of endorsing the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Daily Mail and Telegraph. It would be nice to believe she might have had a tutorial in how the Swiss solved their referendum conundrum before this week’s big speech but, as Switzerland stays close to the EU, she is set on a fundamental rupture.

Denis MacShane is a former Minister of Europe. He worked for 15 years in Switzerland before becoming an MP. He is a Senior Advisor at Avisa Partners and author of Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe (IB Tauris)

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Edited by Hugo Dixon

5 Responses to “If only May had learnt from Swiss before going to Davos”

  • Dear Denis,
    I am personally not worried about immigration, but I am concerned about people continuing to be highly negative about us changing our trading arrangements with the EU from being one based upon us being subject to all European Directives to a purely trading relationship.

    With ref to your article, the Swiss have always had multiple employment and housing practices which have deterred everyone except the swiss from living in Switzerland. This has included a limited quota of foreign nationals owning houses within areas or cantons in addition each canton only ever issuing a limited number of work permits for foreign nationals. When I was working over there, we endlessly had to work our way around the rules, it was a complete red tape nightmare. This we do not want this in the UK across different counties and regions. In addition, we do not want to end up being a high cost country. The prices in Switzerland are jaw dropping.

    We want people to come and work in the UK if there is a job for them and when it ends to either find another one or leave. We want people to be able to apply to become UK citizens in a controlled way, thus allowing us to size our infrastructure to cope. We want to active encourage as many tourists as possible to come to the UK and enjoy the place. In addition we wish to be able to help those citizens of countries in strife who need to seek refuge in a safe place whilst war or injustice rages in their own countries. Lastly we want lots of students to come and learn how to speak our language and then come back later on in life.

    I am slightly amazed that someone of your experience and seniority thinks the Swiss model should or would apply to the UK. It is also incredulous that the EU will allow an Austrian employer to treat an EU citizen differently from an Austrian national. As you know under EU law, EU countries have to treat all EU citizens the same as their own. There is no way round this and our Prime Minister is correct to discard this option.

    • Strange, I have no problem with living in Switzerland. Yes, it is expensive, but the salaries are higher too. When we lived in the UK and Australia, to get a reasonable house and save some money was not possible. Actually in Australia we lost money every month and that was why we decided to moved back to Switzerland. Also, like the more wealthier countries in the EU, Switzerland has a very good education system and you do not pay for it.

      • The Swiss respect their middle class, not the hereditary orders and as a whole the country respects it’s citizens. Switzerland was a very good model for the UK to adapt. After living in Sofia, New York and London, one is for sure – in the is UK is hard to save. Especially because of our lack of healthcare we pay tax for, the long working hours and thehigh level of unccountability in all aspects of life also now parents fundig cintinuously state schools.

    • Do you see many unemployed immigrants in the UK? they come here as there are more jobs opening and jobs movement here than in Spain for example. A lot go back after a few year. My Spanish neighbor is planning to go in two years unless something happens like she finds love with a local. who do you think is going to replace her? some local?

  • Much has been made of the Uk’s trade deficit with the EU
    68 billion for goods and services and the leverage this provides
    The Swiss have an even bigger trade deficit with the EU 100 billion euros and yet they haven’t managed to achieve a significant compromise on free movement.