by Lukas Schweiger, IMS
Switzerland voted today, unexpectedly and by a very narrow margin, to reintroduce quotas on immigration, and thereby effectively abandoning its agreement with the European Union on the free movement of people codified as part of the first package of bilateral treaties (Bilaterale I) between the country and the EU in 1999.
It has been a very nuanced debate, highlighting the virtues of the Swiss democratic model, albeit with a problematic ending. The consequences of the result for the country cannot be predicted at this point, but it is sure that the country will be concerned with them for a long time, also considering the now re-established a political divide between the French and German speaking parts, commonly referred to as the Röstigraben, as well as highlighting the growing divide between rural and urban areas.
But the significance of this vote stretches far beyond the borders of the Alpine country, which has taken a very different path in its European integration process since rejecting membership in the European Economic Area (EEA) in 1992.
Bilaterale I does not only regulate the freedom of movement of people, but also several other treaties, concerning for instance recognition of technical norms, procurement, agriculture, road transit, and science. It furthermore contains the so-called Guillotine Clause, whereby if only one treaty is being terminated by either party, all others are void as well.
While Switerzland has the second highest share of non-citizen residents in Europe, immigration has largely benefited the Swiss economy. With today’s YES on a new immigration policy, the Swiss people gambled, and the stakes are enormous, not only because of its dependence on foreign workers, but also on EU market access for Swiss goods and services potentially being jeopardised. Advocates of the new framework argued that Brussels will be willing to renegotiate the freedom of movement of people, and eventually accept quotas. They are betting that they will be able to convince all stakeholders that the EU needs Switzerland more than Switzerland needs the EU. They feel that the recent debate on limiting intra-EU migration, led by politicians such as David Cameron, will put enough pressure on Brussels to cave in.
At a time, when the European Union is at a crossroads, Brussels must not do that. The four freedoms are the pillars of the Community, and there can be no compromise on that. By sending a clear message to Switzerland, Europe has a chance, amidst all the failures of the past, amidst all the mistakes made in the debt crisis, amidst all the overregulation and bureaucracy, to regain its strength by reclaiming its core values.
Therefore, Brussels needs to invoke the Guillotine Clause.
If Brussels eventually terminated the treaty with Switzerland, it would be a unique opportunity in an atmosphere of advancing isolationism in Europe, reflected by an imminent victory of nationalists in five countries in this May’s Europe-wide vote, to strike back. To strike back at the poisonous rhetoric of LePen, Strache, Tsipras, Farage, Cameron, Orban, and others. To take a stand and say that the four freedoms are non-negotiable. To claim a victory for liberty and prosperity.
One hundred years after the great seminal catastrophe, the outbreak of World War I, it is high time to move past petty nationalism.
Lukas Schweiger is a political scientist, individual member of LYMEC, and executive board member at European Students for Liberty.