SWITZERLAND: Voters back to limit the number of EU immigrants

February 14, 2014

Switzerland held a referendum on European Union immigration on Sunday 9th February. Currently, the country allows unrestricted entry and residence to European Union nationals- this is a key principle of the European Union, known as “free movement of workers”. With a narrow win of 50.3% on Sunday, Swiss voters backed limiting the number of EU immigrants coming to Switzerland. Although this change will only be implemented in 2 to 3 years” time, it is expected to have significant political and economic consequences.

Despite the Swiss economy being strong, popular opinion has been divided on the issue of immigration for some time, especially as approximately 23% to 25% of Switzerland”s popular of 8 million is made up of foreign nationals. 2013 saw the arrival of 80,000 immigrants into Switzerland and supporters of restricting their numbers believe that they cause increased pressure on housing, health and education costs. They have also argued that European immigrants in Switzerland keep salaries lower than they would otherwise be. Yet, the Federal Office for Migration has quoted that foreigners account for 25% of Switzerland”s gross domestic product and employment is at a low rate of 3.5%, whereas the rest of the EU averages 10.9%.      

Those supporting unrestricted immigration have argued that free movement has been a significant factor in Switzerland”s strong economic performance, enabling employers to find the best skilled people from all corners of Europe. Also, more than 50% of Switzerland”s exports are sold across the EU”s single market, and this in itself may be affected once the Swiss government implements restrictions on free movement of EU citizens.

As neighbouring countries have voiced their dismay over the referendum result, Switzerland faces the prospect of reviewing all aspects of its relationship with the EU, and not only the free movement of EU citizens. Germany”s foreign minister has been quoted as informing the Swiss that “cherry-picking with the EU is not a sustainable strategy.” This serves as a warning that once the country implements restrictions on free movement of people, its access to the single market certainly appears threatened. As negotiations between the EU and Switzerland are due to begin this Wednesday, putting in place a new framework will be on the agenda.

Although an immigration cap will eventually be implemented, current EU migrants in Switzerland will not be affected. Non-EU migrants are also not affected by the outcome of the referendum. It is expected that several years will pass before any tangible changes come into effect, and in the meantime EU citizens can continue enjoying free movement and employment in Switzerland.  

To find out more about Swiss immigration, please contact us.