Switzerland’s history with immigration is a long one. While in the 19th century the country saw many of its citizens emigrate, this trend was reversed in the 20th century. With the booming of banking, finance and industrialization, Switzerland started attracting more and more immigrants, mainly from European neighboring countries, who came looking for work. In more recent years, it also started to receive a growing number of immigrants from non-European countries, many looking for asylum. This growing number of foreigners (which today represent around 20% of the country’s population), led Switzerland to adopt progressive restrictive policies towards immigrants.
Although never a member of the European Union, Switzerland is part of the European Free Trade Association along with Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland. However, although Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein are part of the European Economic Area with Europe’s 28 member states, which allows them to be part of Europe’s Internal Market, Switzerland has decided not to join in. Still, knowing that it could not be left apart from the European framework, this latter signed a series of bilateral agreements with the European Union in the late 1990’s. One of these bilateral agreements provides for free movement of people between Switzerland and the European Union, and another for Switzerland’s Schengen membership.
On the 9th of February 2014, Swiss citizens voted to a referendum intended to impose quotas on immigration, including European Union immigration. The referendum (the Federal popular initiative “Against mass immigration”) had been encouraged by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party and it was accepted with 50.3% of voters voting in favor of restrictive measures towards immigrants. Although this shows that the country is clearly divided in this question, it also shows that an important part of the population is not happy with the current immigration policy.
The outcome of this referendum puts Switzerland in a difficult position: the population’s voice is clear (even if the majority was short), but Switzerland also has to abide by its international obligations. One of those obligations is to allow the free movement of European citizens, a status that Swiss citizens also enjoy within the European Union. After the vote, the President of the EU Commission, Durão Barroso, made a statement in which he clearly defined EU’s position regarding this matter: “We will not negotiate the free movement of people’s principle. It’s a complete element. We may not negotiate it. […] It is Switzerland who has to bring us solutions. […] We face now a situation where Switzerland may have difficulties to respect the agreement it signed with the European Union.”
The truth is that Switzerland, like many other countries, needs immigration. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that Switzerland’s attitudes towards immigration are becoming harsher (like the initiative against the construction of minarets or the initiative for the expulsion of criminal foreigners) . It is a right of any country to decide to close its borders, as bad as an economic rationale that may be. Still, Switzerland should remember that most of its trade is made with the European Union, and putting into question freedom of movement may also put into question freedom of trade, something towards which Switzerland should be careful.