The so-called RASA initiative – an acronym of ‘Raus aus des Sackgasse', meaning ‘break the deadlock' – was officially presented to the Swiss government this week, having gathered the required number of signatures in just eight months.
In a move which could make Brexit ‘remainers' sit up and take notice, the RASA initiative proposes that Switzerland repeal the legally-binding 2014 referendum result – when the Swiss people voted in favour of imposing immigration limits in some form – and call a second referendum on the subject.
Since the controversial February 2014 vote, the government has grappled to find a way of limiting immigration without trampling on its relationship with the EU, which is based on the principle of free movement of people.
It has yet to find a solution, and is currently favouring a ‘light' implementation, where temporary immigration limits would be imposed by region and job sector only if immigration causes a problem in those areas.
But this is yet to be accepted by the EU, which is loathe to give any concessions to Switzerland that it would then be forced to grant to Britain in its Brexit negotiations.
A May survey showed that more than half the Swiss people would favour preserving the country's bilateral agreements with the EU, even if that meant disregarding the 2014 referendum.
Feeling that the 2014 referendum had “unpredictable and unacceptable consequences,” RASA suggests the people have the right to think again, now those consequences are clearer.
Its main aim “is to preserve bilateral treaties with the European Union, including the free movement of people,” it says on its dedicated website.
“A clearly regulated and advantageous relationship with the European Union is a prerequisite for the economic success of Switzerland and is of crucial importance for research, culture and education.”
In an interview earlier this year RASA proponent Andreas Auer, a former professor of law at the University of Geneva, told 24 Heures the Swiss people should have the chance to think again.
“We're not saying that they got it wrong. But that the consequences of the vote are bad and it's worth considering the question a second time.”
RASA supporters fear that the Swiss government will be forced to impose immigrant limits unilaterally if it doesn't find a solution that's accepted by the EU by the February 2017 deadline.
“And then we would lose the bilaterals simply because we ran out of time,” said Auer.
On Wednesday the Swiss Federal Council responded to RASA, rejecting the initiative but suggesting that it would develop a counter-project.
“The Federal Council agrees with the proponents of the [RASA] initiative that Switzerland needs stable and beneficial relations with the EU and that maintaining the bilateral agreements is essential,” it said in a statement.
“However it is opposed, for reasons related to the function of democracy, to the idea that the country go back on the result of a popular vote after such a short space of time.”
While it recognized that immigration limits would contravene the EU's free movement principle, ignoring the 2014 referendum “would annul the mandate that the people and the cantons gave to the government to limit immigration”.
The government has not as yet given details of what ‘counter-project' it proposes.
Reacting to the government's stance, RASA's committee said it was pleased that the government had recognized the importance of the bilateral agreements.
“However the contradiction between the constitution and the agreement on the free movement of people is not resolved”.
Implementing RASA or a counter-project would allow the government “to clarify the situation, give the constitution due respect and ensure that their decisions have the support of the people and the cantons”.