Voters given new choices in Swiss immigration saga

Sommaruga trying to explain the government’s plans for squaring immigration curbs with the EU free movement of people accords Keystone

In the latest twist to the long-running saga over Swiss immigration controls, the government has issued two alternatives to a new initiative that aims to torpedo the 2014 vote on the issue.

This content was published on December 21, 2016 - 18:37

The government had already spoken out against the so-called ‘Out of a Dead End’ initiative that urges voters to reverse the 2014 decision to curb ‘mass immigration’. In line with the normal Swiss political process, cabinet issued two potential counter-proposals on Wednesday, which will go to consultation.

The convoluted process reflects the difficulty Switzerland is facing in implementing the anti-mass immigration initiative without violating its obligation to allow free movement of persons from the European Union. The impasse has soured Swiss-EU relations, with Brussels insisting that the free movement bilateral treaty cannot be compromised.

The Out of the Dead End initiative was handed in 14 months ago, but no date for the vote has been set. Cabinet refused to back the initiative on the grounds that it is “undemocratic” to simply reverse a previous vote.

Instead, it offered two possible alternatives to limit the effects of the anti-mass immigration vote without completely quashing the original will of the electorate.

Voters could be asked to prohibit any changes to Swiss laws that violate international treaties of vital interest to Switzerland. This could include the EU bilateral on the free movement of persons.

The second proposal would only remove the need to implement the anti-mass immigration initiative within three years of the February 2014 vote. This would allow Swiss legislators more time to make changes in stages after more negotiations with the EU.

Yet another initiative

“People have to the final say in a direct democracy,” Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga told a news conference on Wednesday. “The government wants to offer the possibility for a broad discussion on its proposals.”

Following a consultation procedure among political parties, cantons and other major organisations it will present a formal bill to parliament by the end of the next May.

Adding another layer of complexity to the debate, parliament earlier this month came up with a compromise solution for the anti-mass immigration initiative. This sets no specific limits on immigration, but would compel companies to prioritise domestic workers when filling new positions.

This has angered the rightwing People’s Party that championed the anti-mass immigration initiative in the first place. They accuse parliament of watering down the initiative to the extent of trampling over the will of voters.

A conservative group, Campaign for an Independent and Neutral Switzerland, close to the People’s Party, has therefore said it will launch yet another initiative to put this right. The aim of this proposed initiative would be to annul the Swiss-EU free movement of persons accord, in force since 2002.

Immigration vote timeline

Feb 9, 2014: 50.3% of Swiss voters back the Anti-Mass Immigration initiative, which was sponsored by the People’s Party, to introduce quotas on foreign immigrants. The EU threatens to tear up all bilateral agreements if Switzerland violates the free movement of persons deal.

December 2014: a group of politicians, business people, and those from the worlds of art and sport announce plans to launch a counter-initiative - called “Out of a Dead End” – to reverse the February 9 vote.

October 2015: 110,000 signatures backing the “Out of a Dead End” initiative are handed in in Bern, the legal requirement for sparking a public vote. No date has yet been set for the vote.

October, 2016: the cabinet recommends voters to reject the “Out of a Dead End” initiative, saying it is undemocratic to simply reverse the decision of a previous initiative.

December, 2016: parliament votes on measures to implement the Anti-Mass Immigration initiative, which must be in place by February 2017. Quotas are left out of the plan, replaced instead with an obligation for companies to prioritise domestic workers when filling new posts.

The Campaign for an Independent and Neutral Switzerland political group threatens to spark a new public vote to cancel the Swiss-EU free movement of persons bilateral treaty.

December 21, 2016: the cabinet issues two possible counter-proposals to the “Out of a Dead End” initiative.

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