Swiss Fault Lines Exposed as Villagers See Risk to Postcard Life

Frida Sommer says her vote to curb immigration into Switzerland wasn’t driven by xenophobia.

“We have no space, and it’s about the principle,” said Sommer, 60, a day-care instructor enjoying a morning croissant and coffee in Appenzell Innerrhoden, a rural canton in the north-east of the country. “We want Switzerland to stay the way it is.”

The country’s surprise vote to introduce immigration curbs has soured relations with the European Union and prompted companies including Nestle SA to warn of a potential effect on their business. The referendum, which passed with fewer than 20,000 votes, has also highlighted fault lines running through Swiss society, between towns and rural areas, and between German and French-speaking regions.

In Appenzell, 63.5 percent of voters favored immigration limits, the highest proportion of any German-speaking canton and second only to the Italian-speaking region of Ticino. The cities of Zurich, Bern and Basel rejected the proposal, as did Francophone cantons in western Switzerland.

“German-speaking Switzerland is more self-focused and needing to affirm its own identity,” said Rene Schwok, political scientist at the University of Geneva. “In the Romandie, France has historically been seen as an ally. One doesn’t feel one needs so much protection.”

Government Quotas

The vote outcome requires government quotas for all immigrants including European Union nationals. It runs contrary to an EU treaty allowing them free entry and has riled officials across Europe including the foreign ministers of Germany and Belgium. The pact is part of a bigger agreement, meaning a change of immigration rules also threatens trade accords with the EU. As the bloc is Switzerland’s biggest trading partner this in turn may hurt the Swiss economy.

The referendum responded to concerns over Switzerland’s mushrooming population, which grew 12 percent between 2000 and 2012. That has caused rents to spiral, construction to boom, and space in trains to grow tighter. Among some Swiss outside big cities, who take pride in the country’s mountaineering and agricultural traditions even if they aren’t directly affected by the infrastructure squeeze, that hit a nerve.

“Overpopulation is the main reason the initiative got accepted,” said Regula Moesler, a 44-year-old farmer who works at a dairy shop in Appenzell. More people “means we need more infrastructure, more schools, and one day it’ll be too much.”

Landlocked Country

Switzerland voted against joining the EU’s precursor in 1992, preferring to stay a landlocked country surrounded by the bloc. A set of bilateral treaties, touching on topics ranging from market access for goods and services to scientific research, govern its relations.

“The Swiss people were unhappy even before the vote, with the government being too soft and letting Brussels command everything,” said Paul Nef, 80, a retired tax consultant from Herrliberg on Lake Zurich. “The vote set a warning that said ‘Enough! We already have 8 million people in little Switzerland.’”

While two recessions in four years have boosted anti-immigration parties across the euro area, Switzerland is unique because the limits will target many highly skilled workers. It’s not only in parts of Switzerland that people welcomed the vote outcome. European politicians from France’s Marine Le Pen to Geert Wilders of the Netherlands and Heinz-Christian Strache in Austria cheered the decision, saying the Swiss result should resonate in the rest of Europe.

Naked Hiking

The Swiss People’s Party, or SVP, the biggest in parliament with 26.6 percent of the national vote in 2011, is a staunch opponent of EU membership and is also critical of too much power with the federal government in Bern. It spearheaded the anti-immigration vote, as it has other popular initiatives, billing these as a way for the common citizen to take back power. Party President Toni Brunner is a farmer by profession.

“Politicians underestimated what was simmering among the people,” said Fredi Kuehne, a 52-year-old businessman from the town of Kreuzlingen in the canton of Thurgau, which borders on Germany. “Swiss people are disadvantaged in the labor market with wage dumping.”

Appenzell Innerrhoden has just 15,800 inhabitants. Ten percent are foreigners, well below the national average of 24 percent. The biggest employment sector is manufacturing, followed by agriculture and most businesses have just a handful of employees, municipal data show. The canton, where women have only been able to vote in local polls since 1991, made international headlines a few years back due to consternation about people, particularly Germans, hiking naked through the countryside.

‘Fear Mongering’

“It’s a perception versus reality thing,” Sanda Ionescu, a consultant at the cultural communication consultancy Communicaid, said in a phone interview from Ornex, just over the French border from Geneva. “The fear-mongering had more of an audience in the rural, traditional, conservative communities who had less interaction with foreigners, enabling them to demonize them.”

Switzerland managed to remain largely unscathed from the debt crisis and recession that afflicted the euro area. In 2013, the unemployment rate among Swiss citizens as measured by the International Labour Organization stood at 3.1 percent while among foreigners it was 8.3 percent. For the EU, the jobless rate was 12.1 percent last year. At the same time, Swiss house prices have climbed almost 40 percent in the last 10 years.

To some, that’s evidence Switzerland is better off alone and that immigrants are a burden to society. Adding fuel to the fire, the clampdown by European governments on tax evaders with secret Swiss bank accounts has at times been portrayed by the SVP as Switzerland getting bossed about by the EU.

Farming Tradition

Even so, the approval of the immigration ballot has many Swiss worried.

“I voted against it, and I’m not happy at all,” said Selina Boppart, a 32 year-old teacher from Zurich visiting Appenzell on a day trip. “It’s catastrophic. You can really see the gap between city and country. We rely on foreign workers. Who’s going to clean our toilets, take care of the sick and elderly, who’s going to wash the dishes in a restaurant?”

Switzerland’s founding cantons were farming communities and the country’s parliament still meets according to an agrarian calendar. Government aid and policies contributed 57 percent of Swiss farm income in 2012, according to an OECD 2013 report, surpassed only by Norway’s 63 percent share and more than Japan’s 56 percent.

`Postcard' Image

“The way people like to view their own country is very much like a postcard: neatness and tidiness and natural beauty,” communication consultant Ionescu said. “Anything that doesn’t fit with that image tends to get pushed to the side.”

In economic terms, the big fascination with nature and agriculture doesn’t bear out. The banking and pharmaceuticals sectors are the economy’s big pillars. Agriculture makes up only 3.6 percent of employment and about 1 percent of annual output. Only a quarter of the population lives in a rural area -- less than Austria or Italy, though more than in France.

“Switzerland is doing well, and the EU isn’t,” said Ricardo Teixeira, a crane operator in Appenzell whose parents moved to the country from Portugal when he was a child. “Switzerland can’t take in everybody, or else it’ll be the same here.”

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