Switzerland and the foreigner thing


After last Sunday’s vote in Switzerland to curb immigration from the European Union, I feel compelled to write about what a discouraging signal this sends to foreigners in this country. Having lived here for a decade and contributed the fruits of my labour to this country for that time – my work output, my taxes, my social security contributions, a thousand supermarket trolleys full of produce, not to mention three new Swiss citizens, I can safely say that Switzerland has enjoyed a substantial net gain from me.

And I’m no exception. The most recent OECD report on migration in Europe showed that the foreign population as a whole are net contributors to the rosy economy in Switzerland. Foreign women have bigger families, filling schools that would otherwise be half empty, with the future workers, footballers and leaders of Switzerland.

And then this campaign begins, peddling the idea that all the problems of the country, literally anything that is bothering the long-suffering natives in their daily lives, is down to this “uncontrolled” influx of people from the EU. Your train carriage is crowded? It’s because of them. You have to wait at the doctor’s? It’s their fault. Your rent has gone up? Obviously those pesky EU workers again. Urban sprawl offending your eyes? You know we wouldn’t have that without these outsiders.

The level of scapegoating would be laughable if it wasn’t hurting people. The debate has got to the point where there is no problem, present or future, that cannot be pinned on bloody foreigners.

And they lapped it up, or at least 50.3% of those who voted on February 9th did. The people have spoken, as is their right, but do they realise what they have said? Did they act to fix a real problem or was this just a way to score a cruel point, to hurt their neighbours?

To understand the result you have to know a little bit of background on how the vote came about. What you are seeing at work here is ‘direct democracy’, the purest form of democracy known to mankind, as I am now tired of hearing.

The Swiss political system has a very special role for popular petitions. Under the initiative system, any citizen may call for a vote on any issue or challenge a parliamentary decision providing they collect at least 100,000 signatures in support of their cause.

Well we all have our pet peeves so that’s great. Of course your average citizen doesn’t have the resources to gather 100,000 signatures but sometimes groups of citizens who are passionate about something get together and pull it off. More often this tool is used by well-organised and well-funded lobby groups and political parties. The gold medal in this category goes to the rightwing Swiss People’s Party.

This particular vote, dubbed “Stop mass immigration”, was brought to us by the Swiss People’s Party. With about a quarter of the popular vote, it is a fairly easy task for the party to gather so many signatures. What they do with this power is to focus on the social blight of foreigners.

For the past twelve years, EU citizens have been free to live and work in Switzerland, without any red tape, just as Swiss citizens have enjoyed the freedom to work and settle anywhere in the European Union. Known as the ‘free movement of people’, this agreement is one of the core principles of the EU and puts Switzerland on a par with EU member states.

It makes it easy for workers to follow work, Swiss retirees (for example) to move to Tuscany or Provence, and people living near borders to have access to the hinterland around them. You could see this as a win-win situation, or you could see it as an affront to your national sovereignty.

As a result of Sunday’s vote, the Swiss government now has to pull out of this agreement with the EU and return to a quota system of work permits, last used in 2002. Never mind that Switzerland has had a pretty good ride since then, helped in no small part by the easy working and living arrangements with its biggest market, i.e. every country surrounding it for as far as the eye can see.

Of course life will go on. Employers will find a way to hire the people they need and the people who are looking for work and prepared to uproot their lives to another country will still come to where the work is.

But the bitter taste will remain. Painted as the problem-makers, come here to rip the country off and make life difficult, we will continue to keep our heads down and work hard but the affection that was growing in our hearts for this nation is flickering and may be snuffed out. And that is the greatest loss of all to Switzerland.

11 thoughts on “Switzerland and the foreigner thing

  1. The timing of this whole issue is very interesting, Clare. Especially personally for me having taken my first exam for over 20 years this morning: the “Einbürgerungstest” as part of the process of obtaining a German passport. Nobody really had the guts to publicly decry this Swiss outcome here so it’s just been accepted without dispute. But as you say, it’s a Swiss loss. I just wonder if it will make you consider moving back to Ireland? Mx

    1. Hi Marius,
      No doubt you passed the exam with flying colours. I wonder what inspired you to go for citizenship after all this time? I am also planning to take that step this year. So far from moving back to Ireland I will actually become Swiss myself and be able to vote at last!
      C xx

      1. What made me go for it after all this time is that up until about 3 years ago, I would have had to give up my Irish passport but now, thanks to an EU-wide agreement, I can have both. Like you, all I want/need it for is to vote at state and national level. Good for you embarking on the process, I wonder what it entails in Switzerland. let me know once you start to pull your hair out about accounting for your whereabouts for every single second since you arrived! xx

  2. Pure democracy sounds wonderful until you experience it. Here in the US we have citizens’ initiatives. Many of them are about cutting taxes. (An easy sell. No one wants to pay taxes.) Others are about the government supplying more services. (Everyone likes more services.) We could always borrow more money and thereby satisfy both demands. But nobody likes to be in debt. We just go round and round, and the people who sponsor these initiatives end up with a full-time paid job.

    1. I hadn’t heard of citizens’ initiatives. Throw in federalism and it’s not a million miles away from the Swiss model. The big difference would be the parliamentary system. The two-party system seems to paralyse and polarise politics in the US – and it leaves half the country pissed off and unrepresented for four years at a time. In Switzerland there are four or five main parties and they divide up the ministries between them so everyone is involved in running the country.

  3. The extreme right is having a field day all over Europe at the moment. Switzerland isn’t noted for waving the Red Flag, so it doesn’t come as a surprise, just a disappointment. The radio here said that the opponents to free circulation came mainly from the rural regions where they get zero immigrant workers, but where the people are terrified of ‘them others’. It’s the same here. The poxy little holes in the Picard countryside where the gene pool has been stagnant for the last five hundred years tend to show much higher than the national average support for the Front National though most of the inhabitants have only ever seen an immigrant on the TV.

    1. You’re right about that. The cantons that returned the highest yes vote (in favour of curbing immigration) had the lowest percentage of foreign residents. You have to wonder what the real motivation is.

      1. Fear that someone might take a piece of what they’ve made for themselves I suspect. Presumably they like the seasonal labour, but prefer to have the option of sending the labourers home when they’ve done with their services. It’s called having your cake and eating it.

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