Swiss Immigration Vote Could Threaten Ties With E.U.

The unexpected vote Sunday challenges freedom of movement, a founding E.U. principle, which could threaten the country's access to E.U. markets.
Posted at 10:57 PM, Feb 09, 2014

An unexpected vote in Switzerland has threatened the country's ties to the European Union, drawn almost universal condemnation by the government and the media, and could kick off an E.U.-wide debate on the touchy subject of immigration.

The Swiss people voted by a narrow margin to put limits and quotas on the number of immigrants coming into the country. And we do mean a narrow margin: the measure passed by just 0.6 percent, or fewer than 20,000 votes. (Via Federal Administration of Switzerland, Swissinfo)

You see, Switzerland has had an open immigration policy with the E.U. since 2002. In fact, free movement of people is one of the fundamental rights guaranteed by E.U. treaties, along with free movement of goods, services and capital. (Via European Commission)

So investors and those with products and services to sell can go where the opportunities are, and workers can go where the jobs are, all with little to no red tape.

And while Switzerland isn't a member of the E.U., it is a close trading partner and has adopted those same freedoms in exchange for access to E.U. workers and markets. (Via European Commission)

So now that the background is out of the way, what exactly happened Sunday?

Well, Swiss voters passed a controversial measure to limit the free movement of people. The proposal came from an anti-immigration party and wasn't expected to pass. (Via Federal Administration of Switzerland)

And the media and government have been very clear: Swiss voters made the wrong choice.

"It's a vote against the political authorities. ... It's a vote against the business community and the organizations which represent it." (Via Euronews)

"The question is, how will Brussels react? The signs are not good. In a first response, Brussels said it regretted the vote and would examine the implications." (Via BBC)

E.U. officials have made it pretty clear they don't like the thought of a country like Switzerland cherry-picking which policies to follow and still expecting access to the single market. But immigration has become a seriously polarizing issue across the region lately.

Swiss paper Le News explained: "Publicly, many Swiss blame inadequate housing, job loss and traffic congestion on the flood of newcomers. Privately they admit that what they most blame foreigners for is the decline in standards of honesty, cleanliness and manners."

A writer for Deutsche Welle attacked the Swiss decision for, among other things, helping fuel anti-immigration fights across the E.U., warning, "Withdrawal, delimitation and national isolation have no place in Europe."

The Swiss government now has three years to impose caps on immigration. It's not clear whether the E.U. will punish Switzerland, but officials say the economic impact of cutting trade ties would be disastrous for the country.