Switzerland recently voted to impose immigration quotas in what amounts to a direct challenge against the European Union, where most foreigners who settle in that country originate. The result of the referendum, which gives the Swiss government three years to renegotiate its international agreements and bring them into line with the decision to place caps on newcomers, has shaken the foundations of Europe's single market. It also foreshadows the strength of the far-right vote in the upcoming elections to the European Parliament.
Although it does not belong to the EU, Switzerland is bound by a series of treaties to the free movement of people from the 28-member union. Various mechanisms allow non-EU countries to access its single market. One is the European Economic Area, to which the Swiss don't belong, having rejected it in a referendum a while back. Another is an association arrangement that Switzerland accepted a few years ago. Among other requirements, Bern is obliged to allow Europeans to move freely across its borders. Thanks to this profitable association, 56 per cent of Swiss exports go to the EU.
Brussels's reaction to Swiss immigration quotas has been tough. Europe has threatened to impose commercial barriers and has already suspended the Alpine country's participation in research and education programs. The real reason behind the EU retaliation has to do with the threat the Swiss vote poses to the union itself, where various aspects of integration are under serious criticism. Britain, for instance, has been asking Europe to renegotiate the terms of its relationship with the other 27 members. (Prime Minister David Cameron believes that this is the only way to persuade Brits to vote Yes in the referendum on the United Kingdom's continued membership in 2017.) Other high-profile parties elsewhere in Europe have taken a similar stance. The Swiss vote will embolden them.
The growth of Europe's extreme right, which is strongly anti-immigration, will be almost certainly confirmed in the elections to the European Parliament in May. According to a poll published in Le Monde, Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's National Front, is seen favourably by 58 per cent of the people and her party enjoys the support of 34 per cent. The connection between the Swiss referendum and Europe's resurgent nationalism is due less to the fact that the vote was won by the right-populist Swiss People's Party (the only organization that campaigned for the initiative) but to the fact that like-minded parties throughout the EU will benefit from this direct challenge to the single market underpinning the union. If Switzerland, an enclave located right in the middle of the continent, can renegotiate its umbilical links to the rest of Europe because it is fed up with immigration, why not the members of the EU themselves?
The encouragement that the Swiss referendum will give to Europe's far right will in turn invigorate the more civilized euroskeptics, who rightly question the bureaucratic and constructivist aspects of the union but wrongly harbour nationalistic sentiments against the free movement of people throughout the region. The argument Britain's Tories will use is predictable: Either the EU agrees to renegotiate the terms of membership, or the extreme right will come to dominate the politics of various neighbouring countries, where sentiments against the union are already running high. Euroskeptics will use the Swiss vote to give an appearance of europhilia to their antipathy toward the union and its basic premise – the erosion of national sovereignty.
It is true that almost one-quarter of the Swiss population is of foreign origin, but much of this immigration has to do with high-skilled workers needed to sustain the country´s competitive and globally oriented businesses.
Not even in the worst times since the bursting of the bubble has the Swiss economy been negatively affected by immigration. On the contrary, it has been one of the few countries to weather the postbubble storm successfully. What a pity that, because of a referendum won by just 20,000 votes, the best of the European project, namely the single market and the free circulation of people and goods, is now under serious threat.
Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute. His latest book is Global Crossings: Immigration, Civilization and America.