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Free movement at risk in heart of Europe as Swiss vote

  • Nina Larson

    Agence France-Presse

Geneva   /   Sun, September 27, 2020   /   05:17 pm
Free movement at risk in heart of Europe as Swiss vote Tourists take a picture by a fence closing the Swiss-Italian border at Grand Saint Bernard pass on June 2, 2020, on the eve of Italy's unilateral reopening of its borders, amid the COVID-19 outbreak, caused by the novel coronavirus. (AFP/Fabrice Coffrini)

The Swiss were voting Sunday on limiting immigration from the European Union, which, while not expected to pass, has sparked fears a shock "yes" could devastate relations with the bloc.

The initiative, backed by the populist right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP) -- Switzerland's largest party -- has lost public support in recent polls.

The latest survey showed 65 percent of those questioned opposed the call to tear up an agreement permitting the free movement of people between Switzerland and the surrounding European Union.

It seems unlikely the initiative will garner the double majority needed to pass, winning both the popular vote and most of the 26 cantons.

But the SVP has eked out surprise victories in the past in its war against tightening relations with the EU, fueling concern that Switzerland's relationship with its biggest trading partner could be in jeopardy.

Most people vote in advance in the popular polls and referenda held in the country every few months as part of the  direct democratic system, and ballot boxes open for just a few hours.

Polls open at different times in different cantons, but will all close by midday local time, with initial results expected by early afternoon.

Voter participation is generally low in Switzerland's popular polls, and rarely inches above 50 percent, but a far higher voter participation than usual is expected this time, with some cantons anticipating as high as 60 percent. 

SVP's initiative calls for Switzerland to revise its constitution to ensure it can autonomously handle immigration policy.

The party, which has built its brand by condemning immigration and EU influence, warns that the wealthy Alpine country is facing "uncontrolled and excessive immigration".

While not an EU member, Switzerland is bound to the bloc through an array of intricately connected bilateral agreements.

If the SVP initiative passes, authorities would have one year to negotiate an end to the 1999 agreement on the free movement of persons between Switzerland and the bloc.

The proposal goes even further than a similar measure, also backed by the SVP, that narrowly passed in February 2014, demanding that Bern impose quotas on the number of work permits issued to EU citizens.

That vote threw Swiss-EU relations into disarray, with Brussels warning any curbs on immigration by EU citizens would put a whole range of bilateral agreements at risk.

Bern struggled to find a way to respect the vote without permanently alienating EU neighbors, in the end reaching an agreement in 2016 that stopped far short of an initial quotas plan, which Brussels had fiercely rejected.

Instead, Bern opted merely to require Swiss employers to jump through a few bureaucratic hoops before hiring from the bloc.

The SVP condemned that compromise as a "betrayal" and launched its new initiative.

Votes on the SVP's initiative and several other issues had been scheduled to take place in May, but were postponed since the coronavirus lockdown measures prevented campaigning.

As soon as those measures began lifting a few months ago, the SVP put up campaign posters, including one showing a jeans-clad behind with an EU-starred belt sitting heavily on a map of Switzerland, under the words: "Enough is enough!"

While the 2014 vote still looms large in Switzerland's collective memory, opinion polls hint that anxiety over immigration has lessened.

The SVP also finds itself more isolated than ever, with the government, parliament, unions and employer organizations opposed to the initiative.

Opponents stress the importance of the EU relationship for the country's economy.

And the government has cautioned that if Switzerland unilaterally voids the free movement accord, a "guillotine" clause will come into force to freeze the entire package of Swiss-EU deals, including on trade.

Swiss voters were also voting on a range of other issues, with referenda on dishing out six billion Swiss francs (US$6.6 billion) for new fighter jets, and on granting two weeks' paternity leave to new fathers expected to pass, according to surveys.