Swiss Anxiety Stoked by Immigration as Zurich Transformed

When seeing a doctor, ballet dancer Iris Inderbitzin wants to be able to speak her local dialect. With more than 284,000 Germans living in Switzerland, that at times can be a challenge.

“It’s frustrating,” Inderbitzin said referring to Swiss German, which has distinct pronunciation and vocabulary from the language spoken in Germany, where she has worked. “When I go to the hospital, I want to speak my native tongue.”

Home to Nestle SA and Novartis AG, Switzerland has attracted immigrants, with jobs plentiful, taxes low and the quality of living high: More than 20 percent of the country’s 8 million inhabitants are foreigners and a third of Swiss health-care workers aren’t citizens, official data shows.

Immigration is a contentious topic in neighboring Italy, Austria and France, home to Marine Le Pen, whose National Front party wants a tightening of immigration and citizenship rules. Even so, in Switzerland, where affluent Germans such as race-car driver Michael Schumacher and former UBS AG Chief Executive Officer Oswald Gruebel are domiciled, looming immigration curbs will target citizens of neighboring European Union countries, some of the economy’s biggest contributors.

February Vote

Companies including Basel-based Roche Holding AG say they need to hire foreigners as they can’t find enough qualified Swiss staff. Some political groups, including the Swiss People’s Party SVP, attribute a housing shortage, overcrowded public transport, blue-collar wages coming under pressure and a rising crime rate to immigration.

The Swiss government has already enacted quotas for residence permits for citizens from EU countries including Germany, France and Italy. Additionally, nearly 280,000 people commute across the border to work in Switzerland. A Feb. 9 national referendum to solidify restrictions and stop “mass immigration” is backed by 35 percent of voters, according to the most recent opinion poll by Isopublic.

“Switzerland needs a foreign workforce,” Laszlo Andor, EU Employment Commissioner, said at a press conference in Brussels yesterday, when asked about the February vote. “The state of affairs doesn’t make me happy.”

In the U.K., the Conservatives have made lowering immigration a key policy, which has drawn fire from the Liberal Democrats, coalition partners in the government.

No Visa

“Sticking a big no-entry sign on the cliffs of Dover may be politically popular, but at a huge economic cost,” Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg told the Sunday Times newspaper last month.

Similarly in Switzerland, passing rules scaling back immigration would curb economic growth by hampering hiring, according to the government, which together with business lobby Economiesuisse, opposes the proposal.

Critics, notably former SVP Justice Minister Christoph Blocher, say Switzerland opened the floodgates a decade ago by allowing EU citizens take up jobs without a visa. Switzerland’s population grew by an average of 74,000 each year between 2007 and 2012, equal to the size of the eastern city of St. Gallen. Italians are the largest group of foreigners, followed by Germans, according to 2012 data.

In economic terms, immigration, most of which comes from the EU, has contributed a quarter of the growth in private consumption since 2008, and has also benefited the rental and housing market, according to a September research report by Credit Suisse.

Cultural Anxiety

In 2012, the top employment areas for newly arriving Germans were IT and financial services, followed by pharmaceuticals and health care, according to data compiled by Credit Suisse. Those sectors are the main pillars of the Swiss economy.

More than a third of the residents of Geneva, Basel and Zurich aren’t Swiss, a phenomenon that sometimes leads to misunderstandings and even conflicts.

English has become an unofficial second language in Zurich, supplanting French -- one of the four national languages. Anxiety about cultural alienation due to immigration is among the top three Swiss fears, according to the “Anxiety Barometer” published by gfs.zurich in November.

The many Germans moving to Zurich means that in the once staunchly Protestant city, from which pastor Huldrych Zwingli launched the Reformation, Catholics are now the biggest religious group.

Closed Doors

“Germans have too much self-confidence and the Swiss too little”, said Nathalie Rickli was quoted as saying in a documentary about the occasionally testy relationship between Germans and Swiss, released earlier this year. Rickli is a member of parliament for the SVP.

Today’s unease isn’t new: The revolution of 1848 prompted Germans -- notably the composer Richard Wagner -- to leave for Switzerland, resulting complaints about their not being able to speak the local dialect. Use of vernacular, which some Germans find hard to understand, increased during World War II, as the Swiss sought to stress their separate identity, said Michael Hermann, senior lecturer at the University of Zurich.

Part of the difficulty for Germans in Switzerland is that they sometimes struggle to adapt to a culture that emphasizes being diplomatic rather than direct, said Matthias Estermann, founder of a society of Germans in Switzerland.

The multiparty Swiss government holds meeting behind closed doors, with dissenters not voicing their opinion publicly.

Luxury Conflict

“Germans get frustrated because they feel the Swiss don’t say what they mean,” Estermann said in a telephone interview. “The whole Swiss system, from the kindergarten to the government ministers, is based on consensus communication.”

With the euro area out of recession, the immigration tide could be turning. In 2012, the number of foreigners emigrating from Switzerland rose 10.7 percent from a year earlier.

“We’ve had a bit of a luxury conflict with Germans -- it could turn, and maybe soon there will be complaints that there aren’t enough Germans,” Hermann said, adding that Swiss landlords had benefited from German tenants. “There are complaints about the high rents and housing prices, but of course if they fell the complaints would be even louder.”