By Ben Kopp
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe
BERN, Switzerland – By narrow margin, Switzerland passed a referendum that curbs immigration from European Union countries. As several leaders threatened retaliation, others hoped that they might take political office on a wave of anti-immigrant hatred.
On 9 February 2014, Switzerland voted narrowly to limit workers from its European Union neighbors by limiting the country’s open-borders treaty; specifically, by removing EU citizens’ equal footing in the Swiss labor market. Leaders throughout Europe threatened to retaliate, and EU officials warned that the referendum could threaten Switzerland’s access to the bloc’s 500 million consumers.
Anchored by economic powers Germany and France, the bloc stretches from Portugal to Latvia and from Ireland to Greece.
While Switzerland is a neutral non-EU country, the referendum’s motivating hatred toward immigration has been increasing in EU Member States throughout the region.
The vote aroused fear that Swiss citizens might reflect the zeitgeist of Europe, where right-wing populists fill the political spotlight has become with an anti-immigration agenda.
“Switzerland is playing the role of a pioneer for the whole of Europe now,” said Chairman Toni Brunner of the Swiss People’s Party, which backed the referendum measure and has launched an initiative to ban mosque minarets. “EU open borders, in the form they exist in today, will have to be discussed.”
Large Swiss companies argued against the referendum, stating that the country is in desperate need of employable talent from nearby countries. Switzerland’s unemployment rate is currently 3.5 percent. However, the Swiss People’s Party argued that the referendum was necessary to preserve Swiss identity in the face of 80,000 EU citizens moving through the Alps and changing the social fabric of Swiss cities, villages, and towns.
Although polls several weeks ago indicated the referendum would fail, a 50.3 percent vote of support allowed it to pass.
Since the multi-year debt crisis began, hard economic times have persisted in Europe, leaving immigrants the scapegoats. The stream of Syrian refugees into the region—particularly around Bulgaria—has also added to anti-immigrant nationalism.
In Greece, Golden Dawn’s paramilitaries declared war against immigrants, with several well-document attacks taking place in Athens.
Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party, known for its anti-Semetic, anti-Roma, and anti-immigrant positions, has moved from the outer rim of politics into Parliament, with heavy campaigns appearing well ahead of elections.
While binding treaties prevent EU Member States from legally blocking immigration within the bloc, several European leaders have sought ways to curb the flow of immigrants from the EU’s poorest countries, Romania and Bulgaria. Those leaders are expected to take up to one-third of the European Parliament’s seats following the May 2014 elections.
“Immigration is the big theme of 2014 in Europe,” said Director of Open Europe Mats Persson. “One of the big risks is that the European Parliament becomes quite polarized after the May elections, filled with federalists who want a closer union in Europe and nationalists who want exactly the opposite.”
The free movement of people remains under attack. But as history teaches, the constriction into oppression always re-opens and expands into freedom.
For further information, please see:
BBC News – EU to Review Swiss Ties after Immigration Vote – February 10, 2014
Expatica – Swiss Move to Limit Damage after EU Migrant Curb Vote – February 10, 2014
Geneva Lunch – Emotional Swiss Day: Votes, Olympic Medal – February 10, 2014
Reuters – Swiss-EU Power Talks on Hold after Immigration Vote – February 10, 2014
Washington Post – Swiss Vote to Limit Foreign Workers Captures Growing European Fears about Immigration – February 10, 2014
Euronews – EU Warns Switzerland All Treaties Will Be Reviewed after Anti-Immigration Vote – February 9, 2014