Why did Swiss vote to restrict immigration?

In Sunday’s referendum voters in Switzerland narrowly voted, 50.3%, in favour of imposing strict quotas for immigration from EU countries. It is not easy to make a great deal of sense about this vote. Previous attempts to restrict immigration, going back to 1968, have all failed. In particular the Swiss have voted four times since 2000 in favour of the free movement of people from the EU. So why the difference this time around? Though the referendum was sponsored by the right wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) the support for the proposal does not seem to fit into the usual right wing, anti-foreigner campaigns to be found elsewhere. To try and understand the vote, here is a bit of context.

Switzerland is and probably always has been a country with a high proportion of migrants. Even before the First World War the percentage of immigrants was around 15%. Today is stands at around 23%, defined as those who do not have a Swiss passport. This compares to the EU average of 10%. However even this apparently high figure may not tell the whole story. Some 35% of Swiss come from a migrant background and given the difficulties and cost of acquiring Swiss citizenship many people born in Switzerland to migrant parents never take out Swiss citizenship. I know this from personal experience. My son-in-law was born in Switzerland to Italian born parents, but he only acquired Swiss citizenship a few years ago, after the birth of his son. This son, my grandson has both an Italian and UK passport, but as yet, no Swiss passport. I am not sure where either of them now appear in the statistics, but it illustrates how difficult it can be to determine just how many foreigners are living in Switzerland. Almost certainly less than 23%.

As regards the opposition to further immigration it is unlikely to have been based on the fear of unemployment and the threat of losing jobs. Switzerland has one of the lowest rates of unemployment in the world. Currently it stands at 3.5%. If anything Switzerland still needs immigrants to power its industries and tourism. It is also noticeable that, with the exception of Ticino, the Kantons with the lowest rate of unemployment, less than 2%, were the ones most in favour of quotas. On the other hand, the Kantons with the highest rate of unemployment, over 5%, voted against the proposal.

Though there has been a steady increase in immigration over the last decades, this has not translated into the kind of social and economic breakdown and violence that has from time to time disfigured countries such as the UK, France, the Netherlands for example. By and large the Swiss have managed to accommodate this large scale immigration quite remarkably well. Another curious aspect of the referendum vote is that, again with the exception of Ticino, on the whole Kantons with above average levels of immigration, Zürich, Geneva etc voted against restrictions. While Kantons such as Uri, Obwalden, Aargau etc with below average levels of immigration, all voted strongly in favour of quotas. An illustration of this voting pattern can be found here.

So what did cause the vote in favour of quotas for migrants from EU countries? One clue may come from the countries of origin of most immigrants. Two countries stand out as sources of immigrants – Italy and Germany. As noted above, the highest votes in favour of restrictions was found in Ticino, the one Italian speaking Kanton in Switzerland. While many Italians will have migrated to other parts of Switzerland, a significant number will have settled in Ticino, just across the border. Add in that Ticino has an above average level of unemployment and we may be discovering one of the factors in the vote. It is also worth noting that Ticino has always voted in favour of restricting immigration. The other fact to note is that apart from Zürich, Zug and Basel Stadt, all German speaking Kantons voted in favour of quotas. The reason for this may be similar to Ticino. The overwhelming majority of immigrants from Germany will have settled in German speaking Kantons. It is also a fact that in recent years the largest influx of migrants have come from Germany. This is a relatively recent, post 2000 experience for Switzerland and one that a lot of German speaking Swiss do not like. German language newspapers have regular articles on this issue. It has not gone unnoticed in Germany. The German online magazine Die Zeit entitled one of their reports on the referendum vote thus: Fuck you, Deutschland. It is a fascinating read which you can find here.

That headline perhaps best sums up the referendum result, though it should be matched by a smaller one reading Fuck you, Italy. Despite the best efforts of the anti EU brigade this was not in essence a vote about the EU. The result was massively influenced by anti German and anti Italian feeling. But, and this is the most fascinating aspect of the vote, the most anti German were Swiss Germans and the most anti Italian were Swiss Italians. For one reason or another a majority of Swiss Germans and Swiss Italians feel more threatened by their fellow language speakers than by other immigrants. This aspect of the result deserves a post on its own, but alas it will have to be by someone with more knowledge of this subject than I.

A few words about what will happen next. The short answer is nothing, as it seems there is a three year period before any changes to the current regulations need to be enacted. What these might be are completely unknown. Even the SVP had no answers to questions about how these quotas might be constructed. Will there be separate quotas for different sectors of the economy? for different regions of the country? Who will determine how high to set the quota? And most important of all, how can any quota system be compatible with the various Bilateral Agreements with the EU? By substantial majorities Swiss voters have approved these Bilateral Agreements, which enable Switzerland to participate in the Single Market. This includes the Free Movement of People. It is almost inconceivable that Switzerland can have one without the other. Perhaps someone should have pointed this out first. In any case I would not be surprised if a new Bilateral Agreement between Switzerland and the EU was to be negotiated, one which again included the Free Movement of People. This will then be put to the voters in another referendum in say two years time. It will be very interesting to see if those who voted to restrict immigration would do so again if it meant leaving the Single Market.

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