‘Substantial benefit to Switzerland’: New study debunks misconceptions about EU workers

Despite some claims to the contrary, the free movement of people has had a positive impact on the Swiss economy, a new study concludes.

'Substantial benefit to Switzerland': New study debunks misconceptions about EU workers
Immigrants from the EU "have a positive impact" on the Swiss economy. Photo by AFP

Research by Avenir Suisse, a think-tank for economic and social issues, has been published, ahead of the upcoming vote on limiting immigration from the European Union.

Over 87 percent of immigrants who came to Switzerland under the Free Movement of People Agreement (AFMP) — the bi-lateral treaty that allows EU and EFTA nationals to work in Switzerland — participate in the labour market, the study reported.

But the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), has launched a referendum, to be voted on September 27th, seeking to limit the number of immigrants coming to Switzerland from the EU.

One of the arguments the party used to gather support for its cause is that foreign workers take jobs away from the Swiss and have a detrimental effect on the country’s economy and life in general.

But the study found that the SVP’s stance is “riddled with contradictory arguments”. 

“This country derives substantial benefit from the free movement of persons”, the study concluded. 

To prove this point, Avenir Suisse examined the reasons most frequently cited by the SVP for restricting immigration, and put them through an ‘economic fact check’.

This what the think-tank found: 

The free movement of persons has not resulted in mass immigration.

Since the AFMP was implemented in 2002, annual net migration from the EU area has averaged 43,000. However, since there was positive net migration from the EU/EFTA area even prior to the agreement, the number of immigrants resulting directly from the AFMP is likely much lower — between 10,000 and 15,000 people. 

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Switzerland's referendum to restrict EU migration

The free movement of persons has not contributed to wage dumping and the displacement of local workers.

The AFMP has not had a major negative impact on pay and employment, Avenir Suisse said. A dozen or so analyses done on this subject found that the overall displacement effects from AFMP-related migration have been minor. 

However, while the AFMP improved the economic situation for local workers with low to medium qualifications, “a certain amount of pressure on the pay of highly qualified Swiss workers can be observed”, the study said.

The free movement of persons doesn’t strain the social insurance system.

Taking into account the relative size of the various social insurance schemes, “the significant positive contribution of EU/EFTA nationals to the finances of the old-age, disability, and health insurance systems outweighs the negative effects of unemployment and social security benefits”, Avenir Suisse noted.

The free movement of persons doesn’t reduce the level of qualifications in the workforce. 

Of those coming to Switzerland from the EU/EFTA area since 2002, 84 percent have an upper- secondary level education, and 55 percent have a university degree. 

Since highly qualified workers are the ones who come to Switzerland, the free movement of persons “has had a positive impact overall on the structure of qualifications among immigrants”, the think-tank found.

The free movement of persons has not led to the increased housing costs.

According to Avenir Suisse, immigration has had an impact on housing costs in some places, particularly in large and cities. 

On balance, however, rents on the new and existing housing market “are back to the levels of 1988 and 1995, after adjustment for inflation”. 

Overall, people’s ability to afford the costs of housing has improved since 2002, the study found: Swiss households now spend only 14 percent on housing, less than ever before.

Crime rates have not gone up since the free movement of persons went into effect.

The study’s findings show that “Switzerland has become safer since the AFMP came into force.”

In 2002, the year the agreement was implemented, 86 percent of Switzerland’s population felt safe; in 2020, that number rose to 95 percent.

Avenir Suisse attributes this increase to the successful international police cooperation involving the Schengen Information System (SIS). 

Additionally, the study emphasized the important role immigrants have played in various areas of Switzerland’s economic life and, more recently, in the pandemic:

The AFMP contributed to Switzerland prosperity.

“Since the introduction of the agreement, there have been positive developments in many economically relevant indicators, including real per-capita GDP, labour productivity, and export volumes”, Avenir Suisse reported.

Citizens of EU states have had a major role in curtailing the Covid-19 outbreak.

According to the study, people from the EU and EFTA nations account for 19 percent of the Switzerland’s healthcare workforce. 

In Geneva alone, 50 percent of employees at the University Hospitals (HUG) come from France.

If the restrictions are accepted in the referendum, there will be “an abrupt break in economic relations with our French and German neighbours and the whole of the European Union,” said Pierre Maudet, the deputy in charge of Geneva’s economy. 

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Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Brexit really does mean that Britons are no longer EU citizens. Claudia Delpero looks at whether there's any other way they can keep their rights.

Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Britons lost EU citizenship when the UK left the EU, on 1st February 2020. 

It is the first time the EU’s top court has rules on the matter, after a number of legal cases challenged this specific Brexit outcome. The decision also sets a precedent should other countries decide to leave the bloc in the future. 

What has the EU Court decided?

The Court of Justice decided on a case brought by a British woman living in France.

Before Brexit, she could vote and stand as a candidate in her town of residence, Thoux. But after the UK withdrawal from the EU, she was removed from the electoral roll and excluded from the municipal elections that took place in March 2020, during the transition period.  

As the mayor refused her appeal to restore the registration, she took the case to the regional court in Auch, which agreed to request an interpretation of the rules to the EU top court. 

Julien Fouchet, the barrister supporting her and several other cases on the EU citizenship of British nationals, argued that the loss of EU citizenship and voting rights was disproportionate. It would also be contrary to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, given that the woman also lost her voting rights in the UK, having lived abroad for more than 15 years.

Alice Bouillez, who has lived in France since 1984 and is married to a French national, could have applied for French citizenship, but did not do so because she said “this was not necessary” before Brexit and, as a former UK official, she had taken an oath of allegiance to the Queen.

On Thursday the Court of Justice announced the decision about her case. The court ruled that the “possession of the nationality of a member state is an essential condition for a person to be able to acquire and retain the status of citizen of the Union and to benefit fully from the rights attaching to that status.”

The court therefore confirmed that British nationals automatically lost their EU citizenship as a result of Brexit and, as a consequence, Britons also lost their voting and electoral rights in municipal elections in the EU (unless the country where they live set different rules). 

What is EU citizenship?

EU citizenship was introduced by the Treaty of Maastricht of 1992, when borders were opening and the bloc was integrating economically after the end of the Cold War. 

Under the treaty, every person holding the nationality of an EU member state is a citizen of the Union. EU citizenship is additional and does not replace nationality, the treaty specifies. But this creates the first form of a transnational citizenship that grants rights across borders.

EU citizens have the right to access each other’s territory, job market and services under the principle of non-discrimination. If they are economically active, they have the right to reside in other EU states and be joined by family members, access healthcare at the same conditions of nationals (for emergency treatment also when travelling temporarily), obtain social security benefits and see their professional qualifications recognised.

Beyond free movement, at the core of EU citizenship there are also political rights, such as participating in the European Parliament election, voting and standing as candidates in municipal elections when living in other EU countries, receiving consular protection from other EU states outside the EU, and taking part in European Citizens’ Initiatives asking to the EU to legislate on certain matters. 

Which EU citizenship rights have Britons lost with Brexit? 

For British citizens who were living in the EU before Brexit, the Withdrawal Agreement protects some of these rights. Britons covered by deal have their residence, access to work and education, healthcare, social security and qualifications secured, but only in the country where they were living before Brexit.

But the right to free movement in other EU states, consular protection in third countries, and the political rights attached to EU citizenship were lost, the Court confirmed. 

For British citizens in the UK, the trade and cooperation agreement has preserved some social security rights and, in theory, the possibility to have professional qualifications recognized when moving to an EU country. These provisions however lack details and may take a long time before they work in practice. 

As the “European Union” no longer features on British passports, the possibility to access EU lanes at airports to skip passport control queues has also vanished. 

“The loss of those treasured rights has been clear to those of us living in the EU from the early days of Brexit. But for Brits in the UK, the realities of life outside the EU, and the consequences of Brexit, are only just dawning. Long queues at the borders, roaming charges, obstacles to working abroad, etc. are the new reality,” said Sue Wilson, Chair of the group Remain in Spain. 

While she said the court’s decision was “no real surprise,” she argued that “this is not the Brexit the public were promised, or that the majority voted for.”

Can British citizens get some of these rights back?

Julien Fouchet was disappointed at the Court decision and promised to continue the legal fight, bringing the case at the European Court of Human Rights (which is not an EU institution). 

Other two cases on the matter of EU citizenship for British nationals are still pending at the Court of Justice of the EU. One of them aims to determine whether EU citizenship is a “fundamental status” that cannot be removed but Thursday’s decision could have already provided the answer.

Another option to reconsider some of the rights is the renegotiation of EU-UK trade agreement, when it will be reviewed in 2025. 

Meanwhile, the EU is revising the rules for non-EU citizens living in EU countries on a long-term basis, making it easier to move across borders. 

Applying for citizenship is so far the only option to regain voting rights, although not all EU countries allow dual nationality. 

Sue Wilson, who has long campaigned for the UK to stay in the EU, said: “There is only one way to restore the loss of our rights, and that’s to rejoin the single market, rejoin the customs union, and eventually, rejoin the European Union… Until that day, we will continue to be second class citizens whose rights have been diminished for the sake of an ideology.”