UPDATE 04/07/2016: Switzerland has seven months left to implement a cap on migration from the EU, in line with the referendum held in February 2014. Frantic negotiations have been going on behind the scenes to maintain Swiss access to the European Single Market, but the recent Brexit vote has enormously complicated matters.
The latest proposal from the Swiss side is a so-called “safeguard clause”, permitting Switzerland to temporarily suspend EU migration in specific sectors should those sectors experience higher-than-average unemployment rates (as long as the EU agrees, on a case-by-case basis). That’s not quite the blanket immigration cap that Swiss voters perhaps believed they would be getting in 2014, but it might be enough to satisfy both the Swiss constitution and EU freedom of movement rules.
However, Brexit changes things. If Switzerland is given an opt-out, then the UK will also want one. So, once again, some Swiss politicians are pushing for rerun of the referendum. If Switzerland is given an opt-out from EU freedom of movement rules, will the UK want one too? Should EU negotiators play hardball with the Swiss? Or would it be better to find a compromise agreement?
ORIGINAL 21/02/2014: The European Union hasn’t had the best of times when it comes to referendums. First the Dutch and French rejected the European Constitution in referendums in 2005, then the Irish said ‘No’ to the Treaty of Lisbon in 2008, and most recently the Swiss have chosen to set a cap on levels of EU migration. Switzerland is not a member of the EU, but a series of bilateral agreements the two partners have signed together are now in question following the Swiss result.
Following the Irish referendum in 2008, the Irish government came under criticism from some quarters (particularly from Eurosceptics) for deciding to hold another referendum the next year. Were the Irish people being asked to vote again until they came back with the ‘right’ answer? To be fair, the government had succeeded in negotiating revisions to the treaty and the subsequent swing in favour was so massive (67% voted in favour on a 59% turnout) that it was clear public opinion had shifted substantially. Still, it was not an experience anybody involved would like to see repeated.
But is that exactly what might happen in Switzerland? We had a question sent in recently from Smills asking what the likely fallout would be from the Swiss referendum. When we put this question to Indrek Tarand, an Estonian MEP with the Greens and a member of the European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with Switzerland, he hinted that he wouldn’t be surprised if Switzerland did eventually follow the Irish example:
It seems unlikely, though, that it will actually come to a re-vote. For one thing, the impact of the vote is likely to be noticeable only over the long-term. Theoretically, the package of bilateral agreements between the EU and Switzerland could be cancelled in its entirety by the so-called ‘guillotine clause’, cutting Swiss access to the EU’s Single Market in punishment for the referendum results. However, as the bilateral agreements are so broad and cover areas that require unanimous approval by EU Member States, it seems likely that one EU member or another would veto such a move.
Certainly, EU governments are giving mixed reactions. When we put Smills’ question to Ireland’s Centre-Right Europe Minister, Paschal Donohoe, he foresaw consequences for Switzerland because of the referendum:
If the people of Switzerland decide that the ability of people to move into their country should be limited, that clearly will have very big and fundamental consequences for the nature of the relationship they have with the European Union, because [freedom of movement] is so core to the European project.
The two additional things I would say in response to that question are, firstly, that we now have to wait and see what the Swiss government and the Swiss Federal Executive is going to do in response to the referendum result within their own country. So, we need to first understand what they’re going to do.
The second thing that we should emphasise, though, is that because the issue they have voted on is so fundamental to the nature of their relationship with the European Union, there will be consequences to their vote in response to what the Swiss government might do in the future.
However, we also had a comment sent in from Razvan-Victor arguing that: “If the EU allows Switzerland to continue with [access to the Single Market], other countries may see it as an example and do the same.”
We took this to Alexander Stubb, Finland’s Minister for European Affairs, whose party currently sits with the Centre-Right in the European Parliament. He seemed more sympathetic to Switzerland’s position:
I disagree. I think the ball is in the Swiss court at this particular moment. Inside the EU, we have EU law which binds us to maintain the free movement of goods, services, money and people. The agreement with the Swiss, however, is an agreement of international law, and I have not yet seen any changes in the policies of the Swiss government that would break international law, and we should take consideration of any change only if and when that comes. The Swiss referendum is a sign of the times, and unfortunately, we have seen a lot of similar anti-immigration sentiment all around Europe.
The Swiss government now has three years to try and renegotiate Switzerland’s EU treaties to make them compatible with the results of the referendum. The biggest risk for the country is not that they are kicked out of the Single Market in three years’ time, but rather that they find themselves slowly drifting out. The EU has already suspended negotiations over joint energy, education and research deals with Switzerland, and indicates that it won’t be willing to sign any future agreements until Switzerland’s position on freedom of movement has been clarified. Unlike the ‘guillotine clause’, if the EU decides to freeze all future agreements it wouldn’t require unanimity from Member States. It might also mean that – as EU law evolves and develops – Switzerland gradually finds itself excluded from large parts of the Single Market as the static bilateral agreements can’t keep up with the changing pace of European integration.
There is a possible way out for the Swiss government, though, which would not require a second vote. The text of the referendum does not mention anything about maximum numbers of immigrants, though it does state that the quotas must take into account Switzerland’s “general economic interests”. According to some experts, it might be possible for the Swiss government to set the eventual quota “very generously”, with the result that it doesn’t practically come into effect.
Most people we spoke to, however, suggested that now is the time for the EU to simply “wait and see” what the Swiss government proposes. Vital Moreira, a Portuguese MEP with the Social Democrats and the Chair of the Committee on International Trade in the European Parliament, takes such an approach, though he goes on to say that he can’t see anything positive on the horizon for Switzerland:
Let’s wait and see. The Swiss government has three years and the EU reaction will depend, of course, on how it is implemented. But it cannot have anything but a negative impact on the other agreements of the package. Switzerland cannot cherry pick and have things that are good economically and just stop making concessions on freedom of circulation, which is key for the EU.
Could the impact of Swiss referendum on capping EU migration be so negative that the Swiss government decides to follow the Irish example and hold another referendum? Or will Switzerland be able to negotiate a solution with the EU that keeps Swiss access to the Single Market? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.