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EXPLAINED: Switzerland's referendum to restrict EU migration

Daniel Wighton
Daniel Wighton - [email protected]
EXPLAINED: Switzerland's referendum to restrict EU migration
A Swiss People’s Party (SVP) poster showing a cartoon worker wearing a belt studded with EU stars, crushing the red and white map of Switzerland with his wide rear end that translates from German as "

On September 27th, Switzerland will go to the polls to vote on an initiative to restrict migration from EU states.


The centrepiece of the September referenda is the right-wing Swiss People’s Party initiative (SVP) on implementing a cap on EU migration. 

The ‘moderate immigration limitation initiative’ will restrict EU freedom of movement in Switzerland. 

EXPLAINED: What is Switzerland's referendum on restricting migration all about?

If the vote is successful, Switzerland and the EU will have one year in which to renegotiate freedom of movement provisions. 

This has long been one of the SVP’s core issues - particularly since a similar proposal was defeated at a referendum in 2014 - with supporters believing too many foreigners are taking advantage of the current system. 


The SVP argue that the current migration system places too much stress on the labour market, social services and infrastructure. 

"We must first secure jobs for ourselves as citizens," the SVP writes

An estimated one quarter of Swiss residents are foreigners - which rises to as high as 50 percent in cities such as Zurich - many of whom do not have citizenship and therefore the right to vote. 

READ MORE: ‘I pay taxes but have no say in Swiss life': Your views on whether Switzerland should allow all foreigners to vote 

The Swiss government and all major parties besides the SVP reject the initiative. 

Regardless of the outcome, experts have also predicted that Swiss-EU relations could be significantly impacted.

The government is concerned it will make it harder to find workers and damage the economy, while there are also concerns that it will mean reciprocal rights for Swiss citizens in the EU will be restricted. 

How will the referendum change migration? Photo: Stefan WERMUTH / AFP

'Ruin the economy'

The Swiss Federal Council said that the initiative would end free movement and threaten the country’s economic prosperity. 

The Council said the cost could be between 460 to 630 billion over the next 20 years. 

The initiative seeks to curb EU migration into Switzerland. Under the initiative, Switzerland would set its own migration quotas. 

Currently, while Switzerland is not a member of the EU, EU citizens are free to live and work in Switzerland and vice versa. 

While comparisons have been made between the initiative and the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum, one major difference between the two is that the EU has no obligation to negotiate a deal with Switzerland should the existing freedom of movement rights be terminated. 

Karin Keller-Sutter, a member of the seven-person executive which acts as Switzerland’s head of state, said supporters were gambling with Switzerland’s future. 

“It’s a poker game and a leap into the unknown. It’s irresponsible,” she said. 

“We don’t have a plan B.”

She also warned that a range of other arrangements which impact trade and commerce would be put at risk. The EU is Switzerland’s major trading partner, with exports to the bloc making up more than half of Switzerland’s total. 

If the initiative is approved, Bern and Brussels would have one year to hammer out a new migration deal. While the SVP is staunchly in favour of the proposal, the remainder of the larger Swiss political parties are against it. 

A sign in French says "voting today" in Switzerland. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

How likely is it that the referendum will pass? 

In early 2020, most experts felt that the referendum would fail - just as similar efforts have failed in the past. 

However, as reported by The Local Switzerland in May, the pandemic led to an increase in Swiss nationalist sentiment, with even centre-left parties supporting policies under a 'Switzerland First' mantra. 

Although such calls are relatively common place among members of the right-wing populist Swiss People’s Party, they have gained traction among the centre and centre-left parties on the Swiss political landscape. 

The centre-left Social Democrats - normally advocates of further European integration - have laid out a ‘Switzerland first’ investment program to encourage the country to learn the lessons of the coronavirus. 

The investment program says it aims to ‘break the taboo’ surrounding the nationalisation of production, particularly with regard to items of strategic importance. 


Michael Siegenthaler, a Labour market specialist at KOF Swiss Economic Institute in Zurich, told The Local that the rise in nationalist sentiment could see the referendum pass. 

"This is going to be a big debate now in the upcoming vote. Who is going to win?"

"It is obvious, again, that cross-border workers are important for the Swiss labour market - for instance for the health sector they are extremely important - but we are not sure whether this narrative is going to win. 

"I don't have an answer, but I do know that there are people who are up high in the government who are afraid (that the referendum will pass). 

"Before covid they were relatively sure that the initiative didn't have a chance. But now, especially if people have lost their jobs, they will find a scapegoat for their personal situation - and it will be cross-border workers or immigrants in general who will be the scape goat."



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