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Switzerland votes a narrow 'yes' to cap EU immigration

Published time: February 09, 2014 04:08
Edited time: February 11, 2014 11:23

Two electoral posters against (L) and in favor (R) of a "Stop Mass Immigration" referendum (AFP Photo / Fabrice Coffrini)

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Switzerland has voted 50.3 percent in favor of limiting annual migration from the EU, thus ending the policy of free movement within the bloc that was established in 2002.

Swiss voters narrowly decided that immigration quotas would be reintroduced, thereby overturning the free movement policy introduced in the European Union 12 years ago. Early results showed the country to be very divided in opinion over the 'Stop mass immigration’ initiative.

‘Stop mass immigration’ was introduced by the nationalist Swiss People's Party (SVP). Its goal is to introduce annual quotas on the number of foreign workers entering the country. The result will likely vex multinational companies based there; Roche, Novartis, UBS, and other industry giants frequently utilize foreign labor.

Before Sunday's results were fully confirmed, it appeared that Swiss voters were completely divided over the issue, with early projections gauged from partial results and estimates showing a 50-50 split (with a three percent margin of error). Ten out of 26 cantons - state districts - and half-cantons had voted in favor of the initiative.

Public opinion institute Gfs.bern stated at first that the outcome seemed too close to call. However, it emerged by Sunday evening that more than half of Swiss cantons supported the move, according to Reuters.

Many in Switzerland - which is surrounded by the EU but is not a member - believe that rising immigration levels are putting pressure on infrastructure, rent prices, the social security system, and unemployment rates.

The SVP party has been campaigning for the amendment, saying that immigrants are destroying the nation’s Alpine identity and taking away skilled jobs.

"Many people feel this is challenging their identity, even if there isn't any concrete economic impact on a personal level,” Georg Lutz, professor of political science at the University of Lausanne Georg, told Reuters.

"I don't want to live like a sardine in a tin can," independent politician Thomas Minder, who supports the initiative, told tabloid newspaper Blick.

A man walks past posters of the Swiss People's Party (SVP) promoting the initiative to expel foreigners, in Lausanne, November 28, 2010. The posters read 'Ivan S., rapist and soon to be Swiss ?' and 'Yes to the initiative to expel foreigners'. (Reuters / Valentin Flauraud)

According to the latest data, 23 percent of the country’s eight million inhabitants are foreigners – the second largest proportion in Europe after Luxembourg.

Many fear the initiative would have a negative impact on the economy, which relies on foreign workers for progress and a competitive edge.

Italians and Germans reportedly comprise the largest contingent of immigrants to Switzerland, most of whom seek work in IT, healthcare, and financial sectors.

Severin Schwan, Austrian CEO of Roche Pharmaceuticals, said about half of the employees at the research and development site in Basel, Switzerland are foreigners.

Hans Hess, head of Swissmem - a leader in electrical and mechanical engineering - believes that Switzerland’s economy is successful because of innovation, which requires a steady stream of qualified immigrants.

"Innovation is the driver of the Swiss economy. That's why we need highly qualified workers inside Switzerland and from abroad," Hess said.

Indeed, four in every ten new companies were founded by foreigners, according to Orell Fuessli Wirtschaftsinformationen AG. Those new companies also created 30,000 jobs in 2013.

Other than a skilled workforce, immigrants benefit the economy through consumer spending. Credit Suisse reported that about 25 percent of private consumption growth since 2008 was thanks to foreigners.

The constitutional amendment could potentially erode Switzerland’s relationship with the EU, which views the freedom of movement policy as a fundamental right.

Marine Le Pen, head of France's far-right party, French National, tweeted her support for the outcome. "Switzerland says no to immigration of the masses, bravo! The European Union will be sending the tanks?..."