Cross-border workers targeted in latest Swiss right-wing proposal

Immigrants becoming Swiss: waiting in line for the ceremony to begin (photo: Ellen Wallace)

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND – The 23 October 2011 elections in Switzerland are now likely to include a right-wing popular initiative (citizen-launched vote) to limit immigration and re-negotiate the Schengen accord with the European Union.

Swiss citizens vote on several popular initiatives a year. This latest one is being launched by the UDC Swiss People’s Party, which voted 396-0 Saturday 28 May at a meeting in Einsiedeln, not far from Zurich, to protect the Swiss economy from what it sees as too great a burden imposed by foreigners immigrating into or working in Switzerland.

The UDC is known in German as the SVP.

Job quotas for frontaliers would be introduced

Frontalier, or cross-border workers are targeted as well: the initiative seeks to re-introduce quotas by country and to limit the numbers of jobs that can be held by workers who live across the border in France, Germany, Austria and Italy. Figures published 26 May show the number of cross-border workers, especially in the Geneva area, growing significantly in the first three months of 2011, after a lull.

The UDC’s declaration Saturday deplores the negative impact on the economy of immigrant workers, while nodding in passing at their contribution to the economy.

“This problematic situation is the result of the free movement of persons with the European Union, a lax approach to family regroupings, the presence of many clandestine people and the increase in the number of asylum seekers,” says the UDC declaration Saturday. “According to forecasts by the Federal Office of Statistics, the population will continue to grow massively until 2035, thanks to immigration. As many as 10 million people could soon be living in Switzerland, if the different scenarios that have been laid out are to be believed.”

Swiss natural population growth, and international immigration: the federal gov’t forecasts

Ed. note: these are part of a series of federal maps, not including one showing inter-cantonal migration. This explains the difference between total growth in cantons such as Vaud, and the sum of natural growth and international migration. Note that the figures are per thousand, so in percentages, natural growth in Vaud, for example, is 1.8 percent, compared to international immigration, which is 8.6 percent.


10% of voters are first- or second-generation Swiss

The Swiss population at the end of 2009 was 6.01 million, 78 percent of the resident population, with 1.71m foreigners making up the other 22 percent of the resident population. Switzerland has the second highest number of foreigners in Europe, just after Luxembourg.

A statistic mentioned less often is that among the 30.6 percent of the resident population of 1.96m who have an “immigration background” for census purposes, 10 percent, or 651,000 people, are first- or second-generation Swiss.

Work permits would be restricted, subject to points system

The initiative would also impose sharp restrictions on work permits. It would introduce a points system that would require foreigners applying for permits to show they have jobs lined up. It would favour those who can show they are capable of supporting themselves and becoming well integrated.

If enough signatures are gathered to put the text on the ballot in October, the federal government could propose a counter-initiative text, generally a less radical version of a proposal. Popular initiatives are designed to change the constitution. Swiss citizens can also ask for referendums to demand a change in laws.

100,000 signatures needed to put text on ballot

The text approved by UDC members now needs 100,000 signatures to be included on the autumn ballot, which is a major parliamentary election. A popular initiative presented to voters at the same time as a parliamentary election will receive more publicity than usual and the voter turnout for elections tends to be higher.

The federal chancellery currently shows 26 popular initiatives in the phase where signatures are being gathered, a process that often takes many months. The well-funded UDC has come in for criticism from other political groups for the way it mobilizes its own party members, through heavily publicized drives, to sign initiatives; the UDC has argued that it is simply better organized.

UDC tallies economic burdens imposed by immigrants

The argument made by the UDC against cross-border workers is the classic anti-foreigner one of protecting jobs for people at home, in this case the Swiss. Le Temps, in a lengthy article in 2009 that asked if there is any truth to anti-border worker claims by Geneva’s local MCG party, concluded the frontaliers do not actually take jobs away from Swiss citizens.

Party officials from several cantons who spoke at Saturday’s meeting listed several other economic reasons for limiting immigration that the UDC says reflects the impact of immigrants and cross-border workers on the growth of the economy: the burden on the heavily-used public transport system, the additional use of energy, the percentage of immigrants who receive social welfare.

The People’s Party is known outside the country mainly for its many popular initiatives against foreigners, some of which have succeeded, such as the 2010 Swiss vote to restrict the building of new minarets. The UDC stepped into the international spotlight in 2008 when it changed tactics and began to use provocative campaigns to aggressively market its party platform. Its most famous was a poster pushing for a law to send foreign criminals back to their own countries, which showed several white sheep and one ostracized black sheep.

Oskar Freisinger, a canton Valais UDC leader, told GenevaLunch in 2008 that the provocative tactics were not racist, but they were indeed deliberately provocative and that he had no apologies for them, since they drew attention to the party’s work. Another poster that was initially banned by some cantons, especially in French-speaking Switzerland, showed a veiled woman and a minaret, for the November 2009 initiative to ban new minarets. The high court ruled that the poster was not racist. The vote passed by a large majority.

Proposal slips in just before Swiss abroad could vote on it

The UDC move comes just months before Swiss citizens abroad, whose population is equal to just under 10 percent of the resident population, and who have first-hand experience with being immigrants elsewhere, will be able to vote electronically on popular initiatives. The federal government will make available electronic voting to most Swiss abroad for popular initiatives starting in 2012.

Some 22,000 Swiss will be able to vote electronically, for the first time ever, to elect members of the lower house of parliament, in the October elections. Their voter turnout has been relatively small in the past, given the difficulties of voting: ballots are sent out just three weeks before the vote, meaning that Swiss in many countries do not have enough time to receive by mail and return the ballots. Electronic voting has been tested for communal and cantonal voting but not at the national level, to elect officials