Swiss to Avoid EU Clash as Immigration Bill Passes Final Hurdle

  • Friday’s ballot by lawmakers in Bern considered a formality
  • Quotas would contravene economically vital EU accord

After three years of uncertainty, Switzerland may just have solved its immigration dispute with the European Union.

Lawmakers in Bern on Friday passed a bill designed to curb EU immigration by giving locals a head start on filling job vacancies. By supporting the measure -- which sidesteps quotas -- they aim to prevent a deeper dispute that could cost the country crucial trade deals.

“In the short term, it means that the danger stemming from the mass immigration initiative on Swiss-EU relations has been stemmed,” said Patrick Emmenegger, a professor of political science at the University of St. Gallen. “Switzerland has bowed to pressure and achieved a compatible solution.”

Since a 2014 referendum backed immigration limits, the Swiss have been trying to figure out how to implement the measure without risking the collapse of an economically vital set of agreements with Brussels and losing access to scientific research programs. Switzerland is not an EU member, yet the 28-country bloc is its biggest trading partner and citizens of its member states may currently take up jobs and residence freely. Britain’s decision to leave the EU, motivated by concerns about immigration, has complicated matters.

Speaking in Brussels on Friday, European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said that “at first sight we would say that the law appears to go in the right direction,” though the EU’s executive body will continue to analyze the legislation.

‘Immigration Light’

The bilateral agreements with the EU are “extremely advantageous for Switzerland,” said Roger Nordmann, a member of parliament for the Social Democrats. Renegotiating or amending them would probably produce a result that wasn’t as advantageous, “especially in light of Brexit,” he said.

The measure, dubbed “immigration light,” requires vacancies in sectors with high joblessness to be advertised exclusively at unemployment centers for a few days to give locals a leg up. Friday’s vote was largely a formality, as in essence the bill has already been approved by both houses of parliament, with differences between the two chambers ironed out in recent days.

The bill passed the lower house in a final vote of 98 to 67 with 33 abstentions. In the upper house, the measure passed by a margin of 24 to 5 with 13 abstentions.

The Swiss People’s Party, which spearheaded the 2014 plebiscite that called for a renegotiation of the bilateral agreements, has insisted on quotas and termed the “light” immigration a plan an affront to the will of the electorate.

‘Dark Day’

“Today’s breach of the constitution us trampling our democracy,” SVP lawmaker Adrian Amstutz said. “It’s a dark day for our country.”

Still, the SVP has said it will not challenge parliament’s bill via a referendum, for which it would need to collect 50,000 signatures. According to Swiss President Johann Schneider-Ammann, that’s because the party may not want to risk defeat. Still, concerned citizens could band together and collect the requisite signatures within 100 days to trigger another national vote.

In an interview with Bloomberg Television on Dec. 6, Schneider-Ammann said that he believes parliament’s plan is “compatible” with EU rules.

Roughly a quarter of Switzerland’s inhabitants are foreigners. Immigration critics say companies have been recruiting lower-paid workers abroad, squeezing out the Swiss. They also blame overcrowded public transport and a shortage of affordable housing on the high number of newcomers.

While high immigration is of concern for the Swiss, support for the EU bilateral agreements is strong, according to the 2016 Credit Suisse Worry Barometer. Annulling the pacts could cost the Swiss economy an estimated 32 billion francs ($30 billion) a year -- about 5 percent of annual output -- in potential economic output, a study for the government determined.

Even with Friday’s vote, the topic of immigration isn’t off the table in Switzerland. In the pipeline is the so-called Rasa initiative, which was launched to annul the outcome of the 2014 vote “Against Mass Immigration.” The government will offer a counter-proposal -- the details of which aren’t yet known -- with a national vote expected in a few years.

Additionally, a group of immigration skeptics known as the Action for an Independent and Neutral Switzerland, or AUNS for short, said on Friday that it will launch a popular initiative to cancel the EU bilateral agreement.

“There will be a vote and that will be decisive for relations between Switzerland and the EU,” Emmenegger said. “High noon is still ahead.”

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