Tabloids embellish blueprint of EU-Swiss deal

by Charlie Mitchell | 22.09.2016

Switzerland and the EU are edging towards a deal that gives a nod to Swiss voters’ demands for immigration curbs while preserving the country’s access to the single market. But British tabloids are wrong to herald the possible agreement as a post-Brexit model for the UK.

“EU backtracking on free movement at last?!” declared the Express, which said European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was buckling in talks with Bern to break a stand-off going back to 2014, when since Swiss voters narrowly voted to restrict immigration. Brussels is insistent that Switzerland will lose access to the EU single market if it hampers the free movement of people.

That remains the case. What Juncker said is that he could live with a deal that gives priority to Swiss residents in the search for jobs – a compromise approved on Wednesday by the lower house of the Swiss parliament. Even with the agreement, which the upper house will consider in December, Switzerland will retain unfettered free movement. It is hard to see how, as the Daily Mail trumpeted, the deal “could pave the way for Britain to curb immigration”.

The plan favours local people for jobs that open up. It could also require employers to inform employment offices of vacancies before recruiting more staff from abroad. Around 300,000 Europeans commute to Switzerland daily. The scheme would be applied to particular economic sectors if net immigration went above average levels in other European countries.

There are several reasons why the proposed compromise is not as enticing as the British tabloids suggest. First, according to the Financial Times, the EU is pressing for an institutional framework that would automatically incorporate new EU rules into Swiss law and require Switzerland to accept the rulings of the European Court of Justice.

Second, it would not exclude non-Swiss citizens with permanent residence permits. Just over two million foreigners live in Switzerland, including 1.3 million EU citizens. The Daily Mail’s assertion that it would “prioritise local people over foreigners” is therefore a stretch.

Third, Switzerland already requires European citizens to acquire work permits, under its bilateral treaty with Brussels, which Britain does not. Presumably, local companies could still hire foreign workers by arguing that no Swiss candidates were interested or suitable. Indeed, many of the jobs undertaken by migrants are those that Swiss residents do not want. So it is far from obvious how this deal would reduce immigration.    

The proposal is best thought of as a weak version of the emergency brake that David Cameron failed to get in his pre-referendum negotiations. It would simply give Swiss residents first refusal for new jobs, in certain sectors, during times of above-average immigration. Importantly, as well as retaining the free movement of people, Switzerland would remain a member of the Schengen passport-free travel zone.

In any case, Juncker has made it clear that this “Swiss-specific” arrangement will not apply to the UK. Those hoping for a soft Brexit who thought Switzerland could be a template need to look elsewhere.

This piece was corrected on September 24. An earlier version had stated that Switzerland was a member of the single market. 

Edited by Alan Wheatley