Swiss Pain in EU Immigration Talks Compounded by Brexit Win

Updated on
  • Brexit crushes Swiss chances of clinching EU deal by deadline
  • Swiss government must implement immigration limits by February

Switzerland was always going to struggle to reach an agreement with the European Union to limit immigration. Britain’s decision to split from the bloc just made it near impossible.

“This is a catastrophe for Switzerland,” said Thomas Schaeubli, a political risk analyst at Wellershoff & Partners Ltd. in Zurich. “After the Brexit vote it’s questionable whether the EU will have the resources or the interest to devote itself to finding a solution with the Swiss.”

The Swiss government spent the last two years seeking a way to introduce restrictions for newcomers without having to annul a bilateral deal with the EU that would cost Swiss output an estimated 32 billion francs ($33 billion) a year. The curbs on immigration were approved in a 2014 referendum that set a February 2017 deadline for implementation.

The country -- a quarter of whose inhabitants are foreigners -- isn’t an EU member, but relations between the two entities are governed by a set of treaties that cover everything from agriculture to civil aviation and the free movement of persons. They contain a “guillotine” clause that would nullify all if one is struck down, and EU officials said in the past that immigration rules can’t be renegotiated. This would prove a handicap for Switzerland, for whom the bloc is the top trading partner.

‘Considerable Divergences’

Switzerland was planning several rounds of negotiations with the EU in the days following the U.K. vote, Jacques de Watteville, Switzerland’s chief negotiator with the bloc, told an audience of bankers in Geneva earlier this month.

The country remains committed to finding a deal, but the U.K. vote “hasn’t made it any easier,” Swiss Economy Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann told reporters in Bern Friday. “The situation is difficult, there still are considerable divergences.”

Johann Schneider-Ammann

Photographer: Samuel Kubani/AFP/Getty Images

He said he didn’t know whether high-level talks would be taking place before the summer break. There is nothing new to say regarding the negotiations with Switzerland, an EU official said by e-mail.

A possible solution for a deal with the EU could be the introduction of a safeguard clause, Schneider-Ammann said in an interview with Swiss newspaper SonntagsZeitung.

Under such a clause, Switzerland could limit immigration in specific industries and regions if an influx of foreigners is preventing Swiss people from finding jobs, he said.

“I’m still optimistic,” Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter said in an interview with Neue Zuercher Zeitung published Saturday. “We’ve been in talks with the EU for months regarding a solution on the free movement of people. It was necessary to wait for June 23. Now we want to move forward quickly.”

Even if negotiations go ahead, the EU may be hesitant to make concessions to Switzerland, according to Tim Guldimann, the country’s former ambassador to Germany and now a lawmaker for the Social Democrats.

“The problem is that everything the EU grants Switzerland will have to be granted to the U.K.,” he said.

Unilateral Implementation

Delays in the bloc’s timetable shouldn’t stop Switzerland from implementing the changes on its own, according to Thomas Aeschi, a lawmaker for the Swiss People’s Party, parliament’s largest political group.

“If the EU does not have the time to negotiate with us, Switzerland can independently, unilaterally limit immigration and we’ll see what the reaction to that will be,” he said.

Such a move would be in line with the government’s backup plan, which it announced in December in order to comply with the plebiscite’s deadline in case no EU deal could be struck. This risks reinforcing divisions in the country, which already was split after the razor-thin majority in February 2014.

“We will fight with all means to prevent a unilateral decision,” said Laura Zimmermann, a board member of Operation Libero, a grass-root organization that successfully campaigned against harsher immigration rules in another vote this year. “Now more than ever we need to stand up for the free movement of people.”

Another Referendum

In turn, this may mean that a Swiss decision to unilaterally introduce immigration limits on EU citizens would result in yet another referendum, according to Schaeubli, Zimmermann and Aeschi.

Whatever way Switzerland goes about it, Brexit has forever altered the face of the EU, with the bloc likely to revise its own migration policy amid increased calls for referendums by politicians in other countries, said former Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey.

“There’s no longer a consensus in the EU on the topic of immigration,” Calmy-Rey said. The U.K. vote “opens up new possibilities for Switzerland, it’s not at all a nightmare.”