How the pandemic influenced Switzerland’s migration referendum

How the pandemic influenced Switzerland's migration referendum
A picture taken in Geneva shows a stand of right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP). Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP
Cross-border workers were crucial during the pandemic. Some experts believed they swayed public opinion.

Swiss electors on Sunday clearly rejected limiting migration to Switzerland from EU countries

Before the referendum however, there were worries that uncertainty surrounding the pandemic – along with a rise in Swiss nationalist sentiment – may tip the vote. 

However, it appears the opposite has happened. Experts now believe that the pandemic may have swayed voters to reject the initiative – particularly when it comes to demonstrating the importance of cross-border workers. 

EXPLAINED: How Switzerland voted in Sunday's referendums 

Did the pandemic remind people about the value of cross-border workers? 

Ticino political expert Oscar Mazzoleni told the NZZ that the pandemic reinforced the importance of cross-border workers to Switzerland – and to the southern canton of Ticino in particular. 

Ticino was one of four cantons to vote in favour of the initiative, although the level of support was lower than predicted before the vote. 

Mazzoleni said the findings showed how reliant Ticino when it comes to cross-border workers, particularly in the health and service sector. 

In the canton of Ticino, one in five healthcare workers lives over the border in Italy – approximately 4,000 people. Ticino’s population swells from approximately 360,000 people to 440,000 during an average work day due to cross-border workers from Italy.

Mazzoleini added that the management of the pandemic saw Bern gain popularity among voters in Ticino, particularly the way in which the government handled Switzerland’s borders. 

READ: Which parts of Switzerland supported the referendum to limit EU migration? 

The influence of corona? 

Back in June, commentators predicted that the pandemic may have a potentially decisive influence on the vote – in the other direction. 

Although efforts to impose curbs on migration have largely been unsuccessful, the vote is now viewed as having a more likely chance of success due to coronavirus-inspired nationalism.

“What you have (is a perception) that cross-border workers may steal your job, but that’s definitely not the case,” Michael Siegenthaler, a Labour market specialist at KOF Swiss Economic Institute in Zurich, told The Local in June

“We find that cross-border workers work in created jobs, while improving wages for those who live there (in Switzerland),” said the specialist who has authored a new report on the importance of cross-border workers to Switzerland.

“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. 

READ: Geneva voters approve 'world's highest' minimum wage

“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 scapegoat.”

SVP also blames the pandemic – but for different reasons

The SVP, stung by the loss, blamed the pandemic for the outcome – although according to the party the issue was campaigning rather than a sudden increase in appreciation for cross-border workers.

Marco Chiesa, President of the Swiss People’s Party and Ticino canton resident, said the instability and uncertainty surrounding the pandemic contributed to the outcome

Chiesa said the pandemic slowed the momentum of the migration limitation campaign, with SVP members having less of a chance to engage with the public directly on the issue. 

Chiesa also said the pandemic was likely to increase migration. 

“Because of the corona crisis, there is a risk that Switzerland will become a magnet for the immigration of additional workers,” said Chiesa after the vote.

“We missed a chance,” Chiesa said.

“We have a problem in Switzerland. We don't want 10 million Swiss.”

 


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