Swiss MPs Support ‘Light’ Solution to EU Immigration Dispute

  • Voters approved limits for EU newcomers in 2014 plebiscite
  • Roughly a quarter of Switzerland’s inhabitants aren’t citizens

The Swiss parliament’s lower house took a step toward solving a disagreement over immigration with the European Union, a move one opponent called a “genuflection before Brussels.”

Following an at-times heated debate that lasted more than 7 hours, lawmakers voted 126 to 67 in favor of a plan that will give current residents of Switzerland precedence on the jobs market. The upper house of parliament is set to debate the topic later this year.

“Of course our current residents precedence ‘light’ only implements the initiative passed by the people in a limited manner,” said Kurt Fluri, a member of the pro-business Free Democrats. “Yet the initiators never gave a clear view on the concrete implementation.”

The Swiss government is trying to square the circle of implementing a cut in EU immigration decided upon in a 2014 referendum without rendering an economically important set of treaties with the 28-country bloc void. Switzerland isn’t a member of the union, though citizens of EU member states can take up a job and reside in the country without a special permit.

Britain’s June vote to leave the EU has complicated matters for Switzerland, as its talks with the bloc could come to be regarded as a blueprint for any U.K. deal. Still, during a visit to Zurich this week European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that although the two sets of talks were “interlinked,” he was looking for a “Swiss-specific arrangement.”

“The negotiations with the European Union are hard and difficult,” Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga told lawmakers on Wednesday, adding that the Brexit vote had reduced the room for maneuver.

Direct Democracy

The anti-immigrant Swiss People’s Party, which spearheaded the 2014 vote, has opposed the plan to give current residents preference on the jobs market and favors the quotas the text of the initiative called for, saying only that corresponds to the will of the electorate. The text of the plebiscite didn’t specify what the quotas should be.

The proposal consists of three steps:

  • The government must ensure that the domestic labor potential is used more efficiently
  • Should immigration still reach a certain level, the government can require employers notify local unemployment centers of job openings
  • In case of severe economic or social problems “broader corrective measures” are possible

“Direct democracy is being buried here, and those who are helping are the gravediggers,” said Adrian Amstutz, who heads the SVP’s parliamentary group. The plan to preserve the bilateral treaties by forgoing a quota system was a “genuflection before Brussels.”

For a QuickTake Explainer on Switzerland’s people power, click here

Relations between Switzerland and the EU hinge on an a pact that covers everything from civil aviation to the free movement of persons, and contains a clause that will cancel the entire package if one provision is contravened. Its loss could mean gross domestic product is between 460 billion ($472 billion) and 630 billion francs lower by 2035, according to a study prepared for the government. About a quarter of Switzerland’s inhabitants aren’t citizens.

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