On September 27, Swiss voters rejected an initiative to limit the free movement of people from the European Union (EU). According to USA TODAY, 62 percent of voters rejected the proposal, while 38 percent were in favor of it.
According to Associated Press, about 1.4 million EU citizens live in Switzerland, out of a population of 8.2 million people. Around 500,000 Swiss live in EU countries, though dual citizens would have been unaffected by the proposed restrictions. Many health care staffers during the pandemic come from the 330,000 cross-border workers in Switzerland.
Switzerland is not a member of the EU but has access to Europe’s free trade area through interdependent treaties with Brussels. The country narrowly voted against joining the European Economic Area in 1992. Negotiations between Switzerland and the EU followed from 1992, with their first bilateral agreements, including interdependence and free movement, being supported by voters in 2002. The state is required to comply with the EU’s major policy points, or else they risk trade access, BBC reports. Ending free movement with the EU would have ended other bilateral pacts including air transport, trade barriers, and research, says Al Jazeera. Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission President, welcomed the outcome on Twitter, saying “the vote upholds one of the core pillars of our relationship: the mutual freedom to move, live and work in Switzerland and the EU.”
reports that the plan was proposed by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), arguing that the current regulations, which allow an average of 75,000 EU citizens to enter the country every year, lead to “overpopulation, rising housing costs, and a strained welfare system.” The president of the SVP, Marco Chiesa called the campaign a “fight between David and Goliath” to regain control of immigration from the EU, according to BBC. Al Jazeera writes that the proposal followed a 2014 initiative by the SVP to introduce quotas on work permits for EU citizens. Switzerland-EU relations became strained, with the country trying to observe the vote without risking their bilateral agreements. The EU rejected another agreement in 2016, with Switzerland in order to prioritize Swiss applicants and take precautions hiring from the EU.
DW and BBC state that Swiss Justice Minister Karin Keller-Sutter said a “bilateral path” is the best for the Switzerland and the EU, an idea affirmed by the referendum results. The initiative was voted on by Swiss citizens through the country’s system of direct democracy. The European Council President Charles Michel praised the results on twitter, stating “the Swiss people have spoken a clear message: together we have a great future ahead of us.”
Voters interviewed by USA TODAY and BBC said they did not approve of limiting free movement. Carla Allenbach, a student in Brussels, explained to BBC, “right now I have the same rights to work and study as EU citizens. If we say yes to this proposal, I will lose those rights.” Voter Elisabeth Lopes told USA TODAY, “I’m a daughter of immigrants, so it is a matter that touches me. If Switzerland had to withdraw or reduce these agreements with the EU, I think we would be the real losers.”
The free movement proposal was voted on alongside other nationwide issues. Voters also supported paid paternity leave but rejected an increase in tax breaks for childcare.