Swiss grapple with pros and cons of immigration

Catherine McLean
Catherine McLean - [email protected] • 14 Jan, 2014 Updated Tue 14 Jan 2014 10:15 CEST
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Swiss politician Martin Suter doesn’t have to look far to see the drawbacks from a European Union agreement that has permitted thousands of Germans, French and other Europeans to settle in Switzerland.


Whether it’s trains crammed with commuters, families struggling to find a place to live, or older Swiss failing to find work, Suter, a politician for the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), believes the blame can be laid at the feet of the newcomers. 

Swiss citizens will head to the polls on February 9th to vote on the SVP’s “against mass immigration” initiative, which seeks to replace the EU’s Free Movement of Persons Agreement with a quota system for foreigners.

Over the past three decades, the country’s population has risen to 8.04 million from 6.34 million. While Switzerland continues to thrive economically, some Swiss are nevertheless concerned about how immigration is transforming their society.

“If we don’t do something, we will have ten million inhabitants in Switzerland in 20 years,” Suter tells The Local. He is president of the SVP party for the Hinwil district in the canton of Zurich.

The Free Movement of Persons Agreement, introduced in 2002, removed Switzerland’s quota system for immigrants from 15 EU countries in 2007, followed by another eight EU countries in 2011.

Switzerland is home to some of the world’s largest companies, which are looking to recruit highly educated and skilled workers from the larger labour pool within the EU.  The robust Swiss economy, which managed to dodge the debt crisis that entangled many of its European neighbours, has proven to be a draw for many workers.

In 2012, some 100,714 Europeans moved to Switzerland, compared with 70,548 a decade earlier. When emigration numbers are factored in, the net number of new inhabitants in Switzerland annually has ranged anywhere from 45,000 to nearly 100,000 since 2007.

The SVP and other critics argue that immigrants are a drain on the economy as they take jobs away from the Swiss, put downward pressure on salaries, and collect unemployment insurance and other benefits from Swiss taxpayers.

But supporters of Switzerland’s current EU immigration policies point to the country’s steady economic growth as proof that things are on the right track: the country’s GDP (gross domestic product) was expected to rise 1.9 per cent in 2013.

According to a recent study from the University of Basel, Swiss tax authorities earn around 15,000 francs annually from a “typical” immigrant household from the EU17/EFTA area.

“People are always surprised wages and employment have not suffered under this increased immigration,” says George Sheldon, a professor for labour economics and industrial organization at the University of Basel and one of the study’s authors. “I point out these people are basically recruited overseas. If an engineer is recruited, it’s to fill a position as an engineer.”

Business lobby economiesuisse, the Swiss Employers Association, the Swiss Farmers’ Union, and Unia (Switzerland’s largest trade union) have all spoken out against the initiative. Along with filling jobs — whether it’s the role of a top-level executive, doctor, or maintenance worker — immigrants also help fund the country’s old-age pension system, opponents note.

They also warn that a decision to scrap the Free Movement of Persons Agreement would endanger other bilateral agreements with the EU, Switzerland’s main trading partner.

Swiss MP Markus Ritter says the debate comes down to demographics: the country’s low birthrate makes immigration necessary to ensure the economy keeps growing and money keeps flowing into the pension coffers.

Ritter, a member of the Christian Democratic People’s Party (CVP) and president of the Swiss Farmers’ Union, says that the foreign pool of labour is essential for the farming sector.

“One can say today that without without these (foreign) workers, it would not be possible to produce vegetables in Switzerland,” Ritter tells The Local. “Within Switzerland you don’t find workers for these jobs . . . the workers are very important for vegetable, fruit and wine farming in Switzerland.”

But the debate is not just about the economy. The Swiss also worry about how the steady influx of new inhabitants is straining the country’s infrastructure. In the first 11 months of 2013, 78,500 more people moved to Switzerland than left the country, according to NZZ am Sonntag. That’s equivalent to the population of Lucerne.

The SVP says that rate of population growth would result in 300 new school classes, 42,000 more cars and 34,500 additional homes or apartments each year.

“We will have to massively expand our infrastructure and that costs a lot of money,” Suter warns. “When we have 80,000 new inhabitants each year, we need homes, schools, roads, train connections. Our small country can’t bear this.”

The federal government, which has recommended Swiss voters reject the initiative, has said other ways must be found to address infrastructure issues. Ritter believes political will can address problems such as traffic and living space, pointing to large cities such as London that have a population equivalent to that of all of Switzerland.

Perhaps the most sensitive point of the debate concerns culture. Supporters of the initiative believe that immigration threatens native Swiss-German dialects.

But for now, only a minority of Swiss appear ready to back the initiative, according to a survey by GfS Bern Institute released last week that showed 55 percent of respondents opposed.

“I’m convinced that Switzerland will become more multicultural,” says Patrick Kury, a senior researcher in the history department at the University of Bern whose areas of focus include immigration.

“Such attempts (to steer immigration) such as the SVP initiative have failed in the past,” he says. “Switzerland has been an immigration country for over 120 years, and they haven’t yet lost their culture because of it.” 



Catherine McLean 2014/01/14 10:15

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