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Why the Swiss voted to cap immigration

- February 10, 2014

Cars line up at the border to Switzerland in Lottstetten, Germany. (Steffen Schmidt/European Pressphoto Agency)
This post is written by Alexandre Afonso, a lecturer in the department of political economy at Kings College London, where he specializes in welfare state, labor and immigration politics.
On Sunday, a slight majority, 50.3 percent, of Swiss voters voted to introduce a global immigration cap applying to all categories of migrants, including workers, asylum seekers and family members of current residents. The proposal was backed by the right-conservative Swiss People’s Party and opposed by all other major parties, trade unions and business groups. The government now has a period of three years to renegotiate Switzerland’s international agreements to make them compatible. The unexpected result of the referendum (the latest polls had suggested the measure would fail) puts the Swiss government in a difficult situation, given its relationship with the European Union.
Switzerland is not an E.U. member, but it has a bilateral agreement on free movement with E.U. countries. European citizens can freely move and work in Switzerland, as can Swiss citizens in the E.U. The immigration cap is clearly incompatible with this agreement, and as all the agreements between the E.U. and Switzerland are tied together by a so-called “guillotine clause”, the E.U. could potentially revoke all of them, including crucial agreements on banking and taxation.
The vote’s outcome has severe economic consequences for the Swiss economy even aside from its relationship with the E.U. Switzerland is has one of the highest share of immigrants relative to all E.U. countries: 23 percent of the population does not have Swiss citizenship, and 63 percent of these residents come from E.U. or European Economic Area countries. Immigration from E.U. countries, particularly from Germany and Portugal, has played a large role in sustaining domestic demand in recent years. This has allowed the Swiss economy to fare relatively well at a time when the export economy (banks, machines, watches) has suffered from the slump in the euro zone and the appreciation of the Swiss franc, which became a safe haven currency since the crisis.
The most significant feature of the initiative is that it succeeded. Very few initiatives opposed by the government are passed. Moreover, the detailed results are not what you might expect: Cantons — Switzerland’s equivalent of states — with fewer immigrants were more likely to accept the cap, while those with more immigrants opposed it.
There are two major institutions of direct democracy in Switzerland: the optional referendum and the popular initiative. The optional referendum allows any political group to challenge a law passed in Parliament in a referendum, if 50,000 citizens petition for it. Popular initiatives, like the one that succeeded Sunday, provide for a vote on a constitutional amendment “from below” if 100,000 citizens ask for it. Very few popular initiatives are accepted. Out of the 187 popular initiatives voted on since 1893 (and usually always championed by fringe groups without much weight in parliament), only 20 were accepted. The success rate for optional referendums is about 50 percent. Half of the accepted initiatives have taken place since 1990, a period in which the euro-skeptic Swiss People’s Party has become the biggest force in parliament with almost 30 percent of seats. The party has made extensive use of this tool, which it allows it to act as the opposition, while also participating in government. In 2009, it managed to rally a majority for a ban on the construction of minarets, and in 2010, for new rules to deport foreign nationals who committed criminal offenses in Switzerland.
Immigration and ethnic relations have played a major role in direct democratic votes for a fairly long time. Indeed, the very first popular initiative ever to be accepted, in 1893, prohibited ritual slaughter, and was clearly seen as a measure against Jews. Until a few years ago, a town in the canton of Lucerne granted citizenship to migrants via direct democratic votes. Citizens would receive a booklet with a picture and short biography of applicants, and local residents would decide whether to accept them as Swiss citizens or not. This practice has been shown to have discriminatory consequences: People from neighboring countries were systematically accepted, while people from outside Europe or from the Balkans were systematically denied citizenship. This practice was eventually ruled unconstitutional by the Swiss supreme court. In spite of this institutional channel of expression for popular xenophobia, all the other initiatives attempting to limit immigration levels from the 1970s to the 2000s failed. Because of the importance of foreign labor for the Swiss economy, they were systematically opposed by business groups with considerable influence (and spending power) in referendum campaigns.
Now after Sunday’s vote, Switzerland has been praised by the leaders of a number of far-right or right-wing-populist parties in Europe, including Geert Wilders in the Netherlands or UKIP’s Nigel Farage in Britain. They suggest that the Swiss, who have a high percentage of immigrants — and high levels of immigration — are “fed up” with it. What is interesting is that this view is not supported by the data: The cantons with the largest share of immigrants (measured as people who do not hold Swiss citizenship) were actually the least likely to accept the cap, while the small cantons of central Switzerland, with smaller shares of migrants, were more likely to accept it. There is also a clear linguistic and rural-urban divide. The French-speaking cantons tend to be more pro-E.U., more left wing and pro-immigration; the German-speaking ones are more anti-E.U., more right-wing and favorable to immigration control. The largest cities (Zurich, Geneva, Basel, Bern) with higher shares of migrants (and also higher unemployment) have tended to vote against the immigration cap as well.
This pattern is very similar to what could be observed in most E.U. or immigration-related referendum votes in the past. Rural areas, which are overrepresented in the Swiss federal system, are also the most conservative. It is striking that the cap had very high levels of support  in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino. Unlike other border regions ,and regional centers such as Basel or Geneva with a high share of border commuters, Ticino is increasingly becoming an outer suburb of the Milan area. This leads to more fear of its bigger neighbor, and of Italian border commuters possibly undercutting wages.
Regional and linguistic patterns about the vote are not really surprising considering what we know about Swiss direct democracy. What is puzzling is that this initiative has much higher support than similar ones in the past. Although immigration has increased considerably since Switzerland opened its labor market to E.U. workers in 2002, the relationship between “objective” economic or labor market factors and attitudes towards immigration is far from straightforward, as the data above suggest. I would argue that the role of political elites is a key factor. The pivotal players are the center-right parties (Liberals and Christian-Democrats), which, according to the final polls before the referendum, failed to mobilize support among their own voters.
Although an alliance between center-right parties, employers, Social-Democrats and trade unions had always been able to defeat the conservative right in their attempts to impose immigration control and cut ties with the E.U., this alliance no longer seems as cohesive as before. Center-right parties have lost a considerable number of voters to the Swiss People’s Party over the past 20 years, and they have sought to get them back by playing on the turf of the radical right. They have championed much more restrictive stances on naturalization, asylum and extra-E.U. migration. At the same time, they have sought to keep their strong commitment to E.U. free movement, which is enormously important for their allies in business and for employers. They have essentially signaled to voters that immigration is a big problem, while arguing that EU migration, which accounts for the overwhelming majority of migrants in Switzerland, is not.
This mixed message doesn’t seem to have convinced voters. As there is evidence that parties throughout Europe have actively taken up the radical right’s agenda on immigration control — Britain being a prominent case — it is plausible that similar referendums held elsewhere would yield similar results for immigration politics.