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Europe's Anti-Immigrant Parties Cheer a Swiss Vote

A voter casts her ballot at a polling station in Ascona, Switzerland, on Feb. 9

Photograph by Michael Buholzer/AFP via Getty Images

A voter casts her ballot at a polling station in Ascona, Switzerland, on Feb. 9

After Switzerland voted in a Feb. 9 referendum to impose quotas on foreigners, it didn’t take long for Europe’s anti-immigrant right to claim fresh momentum in its campaign to make big gains in European Union-wide elections.

Anti-immigration politicians, including Marine Le Pen of France and the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, said that although Switzerland lies outside the EU, the vote will resonate inside it. “You can decide who comes into your apartment,” Le Pen said on Europe 1 radio on Feb. 10. “The country is our house. We the people have the right to decide who comes in.” Right-wing parties—who are also anti-euro and anti-EU—are looking to parlay the recent euro crisis and rampant unemployment into a breakthrough in elections for the European Parliament in May.

Parties such as Le Pen’s National Front feed on economic lethargy, resentment against mostly Muslim immigration, and the perception that European authorities in Brussels are to blame. In France, some 23 percent would vote for the National Front in the European Parliament election, according to a survey conducted last month by pollster Ifop and published by the weekly Le Journal du Dimanche. “Fantastic,” Wilders, head of the Dutch Freedom Party and an informal Le Pen ally, tweeted after the Swiss vote. “What the Swiss can do, we can do too: Cut immigration and leave the EU.” His party is polling in the teens for the May election; the UK Independence Party, Britain’s main anti-EU group, is polling in the mid-20s.

Nationalist parties could get up to 150 seats out of 751 in the Parliament, according to analysts, a big improvement from the last election. Those gains will pressure local policymakers to take a tougher stance on the nationalists’ favorite issues The U.K. and Germany, for example, are already talking about limiting welfare benefits for migrants.

The advocates of limiting immigration into Switzerland won by a slim margin of fewer than 20,000 votes. The government now has to enact immigration quotas, as long as the limits serve the country’s economic interest. According to the terms of the referendum, Swiss citizens will be given preference on the labor market, curbs will be placed on asylum seekers and cross-border commuters, and limits will be put on permanent residency. “It’s clear that we will now steer things ourselves again,” says Chairman Toni Brunner of the Swiss People’s Party SVP, which proposed the referendum.

Business groups that opposed the SVP point out that the government has wide discretion to soften the impact of the curbs. About 20 percent of Swiss residents are foreigners; in the chemical, drug, and biotech industries, 45 percent of workers are from outside the country. The SVP says the country’s infrastructure hasn’t been able to handle all the newcomers. The party also attributes a rising crime rate to the open borders with neighbors such as France and Italy.

The anti-immigration Freedom Party in neighboring Austria, already buoyed in September’s national election by its best performance since 1999, sought to capitalize on the message sent from the Swiss. “Most people in Austria would also favor limits on migration,” party leader Heinz-Christian Strache said in a statement. He blamed mass migration for the “catastrophic” labor market. Austria’s unemployment rate was 4.9 percent in December, the lowest in the EU, according to EU data.

Switzerland’s vote also resonated in Britain, which is in the throes of a public debate over a possible exit from the EU. Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to offer an in-or-out referendum in 2017 if reelected next year. The UK Independence Party says quitting the EU would grant Britain the same control over its destiny that Swiss voters exercised. Party leader Nigel Farage said in a statement, “Were the British people to be given their own referendum on this issue then the result would be the same, but by a landslide.”

The bottom line: Despite winning their referendum by only 19,000 votes, the Swiss People’s Party has inspired similar groups.

Neuger is a reporter for Bloomberg News in Brussels.
Bosley is a reporter for Bloomberg News in Zurich.

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