Switzerland Mulls Over Implications To Curb Immigration

Referendum to limit foreign workers pits town against country, French against German speakers – and Berne against the EU.

Swiss football team after players with a multicultural background have been cut out

Skills shortage: how the Swiss football team would look if it lost players with a multicultural background, according to a German TV channel. Photo: Lee Jin-Man/AP

When Mario Da Rugna heard that Switzerland had voted to curb “mass migration”, he was not so much disappointed as horrified. Da Rugna is head of human resources at Basel’s university hospital, where 45% of staff, and 50% of doctors, do not hold a Swiss passport. His home country does not train enough surgeons and radiologists. Without foreigners, how will he look after his patients?

“We are told there will be contingencies, but no one has explained how they are meant to work,” he said.

Sunday’s referendum on quotas for immigration was won by only 0.6 percentage points, yet the vote has sent shock waves through the continent. Cheered on by EU critics and anti-immigration parties such as Ukip and France’s National Front, the outcome could not only embolden rightwing populists ahead of the European parliamentary elections in May, but also raises serious questions about Switzerland’s bilateral agreements with the EU.

The parliament now has three years to turn the referendum result into law. But foreign workers in Switzerland, or those considering moving here, may not have the same patience. Already Da Rugna has received an email from one member of his medical team who commutes from Germany every day, telling him how unwanted he suddenly feels. “We have to be careful that this doesn’t become a debate about numbers, but also about how we make foreigners in this country feel,” Da Rugna said.

Other employers in the area face a similar dilemma. At Roche, one of the pharmaceutical multinationals across the Rhine, 60% of employees are foreigners. Rates in construction and farming are roughly the same. Even Swiss football fans are scratching their heads over the effect of the referendum result: as a German TV programme showed, if you were to take players with a multicultural background out of the national team’s last starting line-up, you would be left with a three-man team.

“It’s a catastrophe,” said Thomas Brügger, a social education worker in his 40s. “The best we can hope is that Switzerland will get a proper dressing down and people will realise what a mess we’ve got ourselves in.”

The great mystery remains why the Swiss felt the need to hold a referendum in the first place. This, after all, is a country with a strong multicultural tradition, which has more official languages than any other country in Europe and punches well above its weight in almost every other aspect too.

The World Economic Forum ranks Switzerland top of its Human Capital Index: child mortality rates are among the lowest in the world, life expectancy is as high as Japan’s. Unemployment, at 3.5%, is the lowest of any decent-sized country in Europe. Even the Swiss football team, ranked sixth in the latest Fifa listings and qualified for the World Cup, exceeds expectations.

Switzerland does also have the second-highest percentage of foreign-born citizens in Europe, just after Luxembourg: a considerable 23%. But whether Switzerland is so successful in spite of, rather than because of, all these foreigners is far from clear. So why are the Swiss so worried about immigration?

One of the intriguing aspects of the plebiscite was that it not only confirmed the existence of the “Rösti curtain” – a reference to the German Swiss potato dish that symbolises the old political divide between French-speaking and German-speaking Switzerland (French-speaking areas voted against quotas; German-speaking were divided, and the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino was in favour) but also a split between urban and rural areas.

With the exception of the Tessin canton, which attracts a lot of immigration from Italy, people in towns where most of the foreigners live voted against curbing immigration – in the countryside, where Swiss nationals dominate, they voted for it. From Basel, it takes only a 15-minute train journey to cross the line: from the city, where only 39% voted in favour of the initiative, to Liestal in Basel region, where 50.6% welcomed it.

“We know we’re being swamped,” said a vendor at a roadside rotisserie near Liestal, “Switzerland has started a revolution in Europe.” Asked where those foreigners came from, and where they could be found in Liestal, he was more vague. He’d seen some Africans queuing at the job centre, and heard on the radio that Romanians would come to claim unemployment benefits – he was sure that was why the taxman had been cracking down on him recently.

Thomas Wiesner, a technician who parked his van a few metres further down the road, said he had voted against in the referendum: “We’re a bit spoiled here when it comes to direct democracy.” But he hoped the outcome would make the rest of Europe think harder about “wage-dumping”, or offering lower wages than the norm, in a globalised economy. He himself didn’t worry too much about Poles or Czechs taking his clients: “People around here want to know you before they let you into their houses – they prefer Swiss technicians any time”.

Even the party that proposed the referendum, the Swiss People’s party (SVP), can be evasive when asked what they mean by “mass immigration”. Over a coffee at Liestal’s Hotel Engel, regional president Oskar Stürmer mentioned “Poles who work in construction” but couldn’t name a business in the area where any were prevalent.

Most of his arguments use the future tense: the referendum was above all, he said, about “people who could come to settle here”.

“A lot of foreigners don’t understand our society, which is very problematic in a federal system. Most Swiss would see their GP if they have an ailment – but foreigners tend to go straight to the hospital, so we’ve had to pay for the extra cost. It takes two to three generations for a foreigner to integrate”.

Even opposition politicians show some grudging respect for the SVP’s campaign. “We underestimated them,” says Basel’s economic minister Christoph Brutschin, a social democrat. “They ran a very polite campaign so the opposition retaliated politely. Then, only a few days before the vote, out came the more populist posters with the women in veils.”

Perhaps the most clever aspect of the SVP’s strategy was that they rarely specified what kind of immigration they were talking about. “They won the vote when they were allowed to use the term ‘mass immigration’ in the referendum text,” said George Sheldon, a New York-born academic at Basel University. “Who could possibly be for ‘mass’ anything?”

Sheldon argues that “welfare tourism” is generally an urban myth in Switzerland. Many foreigners tend to be exceptionally well qualified: more than half of migrants who got work permits here since the 1990s had a degree.

“People who come here have already been educated at the expense of other countries, and they are usually fairly young and healthy: they’re topping up Switzerland’s benefits system, but they’re not taking anything out,” said Sheldon. “It’s a win-win.”

In Basel, by far the largest group of foreign residents, more than a quarter, are Germans; another 36,000 commute from Baden-Württemberg every day. Two years ago, there was an uproar in the local media after Coop ran an advertising campaign that used the High German word for “to barbecue”, grillen, rather than the Swiss Germangrillieren. Eventually, the retailer had to issue a new set of posters.

“There has long been a latent Germanophobia in Switzerland,” said Daniel Binswanger, editor of the political weekly Das Magazin. “We Swiss are polite and introvert, and the Germans are arrogant and loud, that’s the cliche. Now a lot of Swiss people have German bosses, and it irritates them.”

This is the main difference between Switzerland and other countries where rightwing populists are causing a stir, such as Britain or France: in Switzerland it is not just the working classes but also the upper middle classes who are voicing anxiety about the effects of globalisation. What is to be seen is whether it is just another area in which Switzerland bucks the European trend – or a glimpse of the continent’s future.

– The Guardian