On Tuesday four citizens’ committees clubbed together to launch their campaign, which must gather 50,000 signatures by April 7th in order to go to a referendum, at the earliest in September.
The move is the latest episode in a saga that dates back to February 2014, when the public narrowly voted to introduce quotas on EU immigration in an ‘anti-mass immigration’ initiative backed by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP).
After nearly three years of hand-wringing following the legally binding referendum, last December the Swiss parliament decided to implement a hugely watered-down version of the initiative that would not introduce quotas but would give Swiss workers some preference in the job market.
This ‘light’ solution sought to preserve the country’s relationship with the EU, which would have been threatened by immigration controls since they contravene the principle of free movement of people between Switzerland and the bloc.
But the government’s decision did not go down well with many, who felt it was undemocratic in not respecting the will of the people who voted for quotas.
This latest initiative seeks to rectify that by giving the people a say on the government’s ‘light’ solution.
Speaking to the media in Bern on Tuesday Nenad Stojanovic, who launched the campaign, said the four committees involved were united in feeling that the law adopted by parliament was not compatible with the 2014 initiative, reported news agencies.
It is “extremely problematic, in a system of direct democracy, that in the end citizens cannot have their say on the ‘light’ solution,” he said.
A referendum on the subject would also allow the people to clarify their position on Swiss-EU relations, he added.
All four groups were concerned by the fact that no political party had launched their own referendum campaign to challenge parliament’s December decision, not even the SVP, which was staunchly against the ‘light’ solution.
Student Sandra Bieri, who created one of the four groups, ‘No to the violation of the constitution’, told the media that the situation put the whole system of direct democracy in danger and called for “all the true democrats of the country” to back their initiative in order to signal to the government that it cannot ignore the will of the people.
However the four committees are not all on the same page when it comes to how they would vote, should a referendum go ahead.
While Stojanovic said he would vote in favour of the government’s ‘light’ solution, other more conservative groups would vote against.
A ‘no’ vote would send the government back to the drawing board, as it would once again have to try to find a way to implement immigration quotas without contravening free movement – or be forced to abandon free movement altogether, putting the future of its relations with the EU in jeopardy.
In the meantime, another popular initiative could also be put to the public vote.
RASA – an acronym of ‘Raus aus der Sackgasse', meaning ‘break the deadlock' – is calling for a revote on the 2014 initiative.
The Swiss government has rejected RASA, saying it would be undemocratic to vote again on the same subject so soon, but is developing a counter-project which could see the public asked to vote on whether any immigration controls should take into account Swiss-EU bilateral agreements.
Meanwhile another group, Association for an Independent and Neutral Switzerland (AUNS), is planning to launch a further referendum campaign calling for the total abandonment of free movement between the EU and Switzerland.
Under Switzerland's system of direct democracy Swiss citizens can object to a piece of new legislation by calling for a referendum on the subject.
50,000 signatures must be gathered within 100 days for it to go to a public vote.