Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Switzerland Finesses its Anti-Mass-Immigration-Initiative

Landlocked in the EU

This is an update to my post on the Swiss anti-mass-immigration initiative two years ago.

Switzerland, too, has to deal with right wing nationalist populism. An anti-mass-immigration referendum passed by Swiss voters in February 2014 has been hanging over bilateral trade relations with the EU like a sword of Damocles for the last three years.  Last week the Swiss Parliament managed to significantly reduce the danger. Chalk it up as a round for common sense.

Switzerland has access to the EU common market by virtue of seven bilateral agreements signed in 1999 and effective in 2002. These treaties govern air traffic, road traffic, agriculture, technical trade barriers, public procurement, science, and--crucially--the free movement of people. As a result, most EU law applies universally throughout the EU, the European Economic Area and Switzerland. Switzerland is also a member of the Schengen area which permits people to move freely across borders in Europe. Switzerland has been able to enjoy its cherished independence and "neutrality" by not joining the EU, while at the same time enjoying most of the benefits of EU membership.

Yet, this virtual EU membership comes with strings attached. Switzerland, like other states, pays into the EU budget. And Switzerland, like EU member states, is bound by EU norms. The agreements are a limitation on Swiss sovereignty. Significantly, the EU insisted that in exchange for access to the common market, Switzerland may not pick and choose between which EU standards it will be bound by--Switzerland must take more or less the whole package. The bilateral agreements contain a "guillotine clause:" if any one treaty is abrogated, all seven treaties become null and void. 

Nativist nationalists in Switzerland have chafed at this loss of sovereignty, especially where the free movement of people across borders is concerned.  In February 2014, the conservative Swiss Peoples Party (SVP) sponsored an initiative to curb mass-immigration to Switzerland, including immigration from EU member states. The mass-immigration-initiative, adopted on February 9, 2014, directed the Swiss Parliament to establish immigration quotas (although the quota levels were left open). But adopting such immigration limits would violate the agreements with the EU regarding the free movement of peoples.

In light of "the guillotine clause" this 2014 initiative has threatened to derail all of Switzerland's bilateral agreements regarding free trade with the EU. Under the treaties, Switzerland had three years, until February 9, 2017 to sort this out. 

The Swiss parliament has chosen to interpret the anti-mass-immigration initiative as non-binding insofar as the initiative could not be implemented without violating the EU agreements. The initiative was not a decision by Swiss voters to exit from its virtual  EU member status, said Simonetta Sommaruga at a press conference (German) last Thursday. The initiative did not say what to do if Parliament could not implement the initiative without violating agreements with the EU--without jeopardizing Switzerland's access to the EU common market--said Sommaruga. 

The Swiss parliament thus enacted a symbolic measure: in sectors of the Swiss economy suffering under high unemployment employers must first attempt to fill vacant positions with Swiss applicants before considering workers from other states. But there are no robust enforcement mechanisms. In Brussels,  European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said that “at first sight we would say that the law appears to go in the right direction” suggesting that the EU will accept the Swiss "solution" to its anti-mass-immigration initiative. The SVP, sponsor of the 2014 initiative, complains that the "solution" tramples on Swiss democracy by circumventing the intent of the anti-mass-immigration initiative, but the SVP appears to have accepted that in a post-Brexit world, the Swiss voters (today) would not support a Swiss exit from its quasi EU membership status. 

Simonetta Sommaruga, Swiss Justice Minister

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