Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

A Swiss voter casts his vote leaves at a makeshift polling station as Swiss voters went to the polls to decide on a proposal to cap immigration to the Alpine republic, in the centre of Geneva on Sunday, Feb. 9. (Anja Niedringhaus/AP)
A Swiss voter casts his vote leaves at a makeshift polling station as Swiss voters went to the polls to decide on a proposal to cap immigration to the Alpine republic, in the centre of Geneva on Sunday, Feb. 9. (Anja Niedringhaus/AP)

EU-Swiss ties strained after border vote restricts immigration Add to ...

The European Union said Sunday it will review ties with Switzerland after the non-member country voted to restrict EU immigration in a referendum cheered by right-wing parties across Europe.

Final results of the nail-bitingly close plebiscite showed 50.3 per cent of voters backed the “Stop Mass Immigration” plan pushed by Swiss right-wing populists.

The fallout from the result could sink a raft of deals with the EU, including on the economic front.

Switzerland is ringed by EU member countries and does the bulk of its trade with the 28-nation bloc, but has remained steadfast about not becoming a member.

The European Commission said it would assess EU ties with Switzerland, raising the prospect of restricted trade or other backlash.

“The EU will examine the implications of this initiative on EU-Swiss relations as a whole,” it said a statement.

Wolfgang Schaeuble, finance minister of Germany, Switzerland’s top trade partner, said the result “is going to create plenty of problems for Switzerland in a host of areas.” But he said it was also a warning sign of European globalization fears.

Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter said he planned to tour European capitals to explain the vote and seek a solution, starting with Berlin.

“The people are sovereign, and a healthy system doesn’t force the public to follow political authorities with outsized powers,” Mr. Burkhalter said.

Hawkish about sovereignty, the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which piloted the referendum, claims the country has been swamped by migrants.

“The people have taken back their destiny over immigration,” said party ideologue Christoph Blocher, while leader Toni Brunner hailed “a turning point in our immigration policy.”

The SVP says that with 80,000 EU citizens arriving per year, the nation of eight million people needs to apply the brakes.

It says EU migrants undercut Swiss workers’ salaries, and that overpopulation has driven up rents, stretched the health and education systems, and overloaded the road and rail networks.

The majority of recent immigrants are from neighbouring Germany, Italy and France, as well as Portugal.

The new measure will leave it up to authorities to set quotas for foreigners’ work permits per sector.

Critics say restricting the hiring of EU citizens will hamper the wealthy Swiss economy, which enjoys virtually full employment but has an aging population, and it could also hurt trade with a disgruntled EU.

“This is a bad result. Switzerland needs good relations with the EU,” said Paul Rechsteiner, a Socialist lawmaker and trade union official.

The national employers’ federation warned that “period of uncertainty has begun for the Swiss economy, and that is not a good thing.”

But the result was hailed by some within the EU who want to rein in immigration among its member states, notably from eastern to western Europe.

“A wise and strong Switzerland has stood up to the bullying and threats of the unelected bureaucrats of Brussels,” said Nigel Farage, leader of the U.K. Independence Party.

France’s extreme right National Front party hailed “the Swiss people’s lucidity” in a statement, calling for France to likewise stop “mass immigration.”

Austria’s far-right FPO party said that country would vote the same way given the chance, while Italy’s populist North League demanded a similar referendum there.

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories