After a petition was signed in Switzerland by over 100,000 people, the 8 million residents of Switzerland will now get a chance to have another say on the issue of immigration quotas for EU nationals.
With only 50.3%, in February 2014 the Swiss voted in favour of introducing quotas for EU migrants. The Swiss have until 2017 to implement this measure, however the quotas would violate the terms of Switzerland”s free movement treaty with the EU. Although the quotas could in theory be unilaterally imposed, this is likely to provoke retaliatory measures from the EU which could result in suspension of other EU-Swiss bilateral agreements, and/ or reduced market access to the EU for Swiss firms.
Presently Switzerland does not have a single deal with the EU, instead the deal is made up of 120 bilateral agreements which mean that Switzerland is currently party to the EU”s free movement of people. In 2012 Switzerland accepted four and a half times more EU migrants than the UK in gross terms in proportion to both populations, with almost a quarter of the country”s residents not having a Swiss passport. There are already quota systems in place for non-EEA nationals for certain types of permits.
Unlike the UK, in Switzerland the result of a referendum is legally binding, and any petition signed by more than 100,000 Swiss citizens can result in a referendum, which is able to change Swiss constitution and can overturn recently passed law.
Having campaigned against the quota initiative believing it would hurt the economy, the Swiss Government has said that it intends to respect the will of the electorate, and they have even said they will act unilaterally if an agreement with counterparts in Brussels is unable to be reached. Given that the EU have postponed further talks with the Swiss following the outcome of the UK referendum, it is very timely that a group of Swiss citizens have succeeded in obtaining enough signatures for a second plebiscite – the first time there has been a petition for the sole purpose of reversing an earlier one – which could overturn the initial EU immigration vote.
The news of this second plebiscite in Switzerland has come at a time where 4 million people in Britain have signed a petition for a second referendum on the EU membership. Unlike Switzerland the petition in the UK only allows for the matter to be considered for debate among lawmakers and not a second vote, as illustrated by the fact that UK parliament have debated the petition and rejected a second referendum outright.
If the Swiss referendum produces the same result as in 2014, the Swiss may have to either prepare a compromise solution in which migration controls can be implemented in certain sectors only (with the agreement of the EU, of course), as the Swiss are far more dependent on the EU for markets than the EU is on Switzerland, making the Swiss negotiating hand relatively weak. They may have to proceed with implementing quotas unilaterally, and face the possible political and economic consequences.
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