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Free movement vote could result in ‘Swiss Brexit’

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Free movement vote could result in ‘Swiss Brexit’
Could the sun be setting on Swiss-EU bilaterals? Photo: Fabrice Coffrini
10:27 CET+01:00
Switzerland may not be in the European Union but it could nevertheless face its own ‘Brexit’ if the Swiss people were to vote against the free movement of people.
That’s the conclusion of commentators following the launch of the SVP’s new popular initiative, which wants to ask the Swiss public to decide, once and for all, if they wish to maintain the country’s current relationship with the EU or go their own way. 
 
The initiative ‘For limited immigration' proposes that Switzerland manage its immigration policy unilaterally. If accepted at referendum, the Swiss government would have one year to put an end to the country's free movement agreement with the EU, which currently allows EU citizens to work and live freely in Switzerland, and vice versa. 
 
Doing so would undoubtedly throw Swiss-EU relations into disarray, since the free movement agreement is part of a package of seven bilaterals signed in 1999 covering agriculture, research, civil aviation, transport and trade. 
 
Under the so-called guillotine clause, ending one of these seven bilaterals would put an end to them all. And the EU is unlikely to shift from this position, since it has always maintained – as it is currently impressing upon Britain – that a country cannot have access to the single market without accepting free movement.
 
To date, the Swiss public has seemed reluctant to choose one path over the other. In a 2014 referendum the public voted in favour of Switzerland taking back control of immigration, yet surveys showed that most Swiss nevertheless wanted to safeguard the country’s bilateral arrangements with the EU. 
 
And since Switzerland signed the free movement agreement in 1999 the public has several times voted in favour of the bilateral path.
 
 
But the Swiss people would be finally forced to choose should this new popular initiative go to referendum. One thing both supporters and opponents of the initiative seem to agree on is that it would certainly clarify the situation. 
 
“The potential benefit of this text is that it wants to actually end the bilateral agreements and therefore do a sort of Swiss Brexit and leave the European market,” Socialist MP Roger Nordmann told broadcaster RTS
 
Voting on the subject “will have a clarifying effect, because I don’t believe the Swiss population will want to find itself in the same situation as England is in now,” he said.
 
The initiative will “push every political body to justify what they think we should do,” agreed PLR MP Beat Walti, who said opponents of the initiative must impress upon voters that it’s not just about free movement but a whole raft of bilaterals.
 
Supporters of the proposal say accepting free movement was “a fundamental error” that hasn’t brought the economic benefits that others claim, reported Le Matin following a press conference to launch the initiative.
 
Immigration from the EU has led to a population explosion and lowered quality of life, said Lukas Reimann, president of Action for an independent Switzerland (AUNS) which has co-authored the initiative along with the Swiss People’s Party (SVP).
 
It is not acceptable that 500 million EU citizens have the right to set up home in a small country like Switzerland, added SVP president Albert Rösti.
 
Campaigners have 18 months to gather 100,000 signatures to push the popular initiative to a referendum.
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