Swiss decision on quotas for EU-8 States is 1st step

Longer term solutions sought. to absorb immigrants

BERN, SWITZERLAND – The Swiss government’s announcement late Wednesday 18 April that it will temporarily cap the number of workers allowed from the European Union-8 States, has prompted several reactions outside the country, which reflect a mix of concerns. But within Switzerland it’s the additional measures to seek longer term solutions to deal with migration that will be debated.

The Federal Council says a quota of 2,000 B residence permits for 12 months will be revived starting 1 May, for workers from the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. Switzerland had quotas but suspended them 1 May 2011. The  government will decide before May 2013 if the quotas will remain in place for the following 12 months.

Agreement with EU allows quotas for transition period that ends in May 2014

By 31 May 2014 the quotas will be lifted permanently, under the terms of the Swiss-EU greement on the free movement of persons (AFM), says Bern, although some EU officials appear to interpret the agreement differently, according to media reports.

The stated rationale for the move is that the safeguard clause in the Agreement on the free movement of persons (AFM) allows Switzerland to unilaterally re-introduce quotas for the EU-8 countries until 2014, “provided that in a given year the number of residence permits and/or short-term residence permits for job seekers from the EU/EFTA States exceeds the average of the previous three years by at least 10 percent.”

The conditions were fulfilled for category B permits, says Bern, from May 2011 through April 2012: the quota could legally be implemented if more than 2,283 B residence permits were issued during that time. More than 6,000 were issued.

The conditions were not, however, met for L permits, and no quota is being implemented there.

B permits are granted, Bern notes, “to persons who possess an employment contract in Switzerland that is valid for more than a year or for an unlimited period, and to individuals who are self-employed. Short residence permits of category L are granted to foreign workers whose employment contract is valid for up to one year.”

EU-8 leaders and some EU politicians unhappy

“Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, said Switzerland’s decision would ‘discriminate’ against eight EU member nations and ‘goes against the spirit and letter of what Switzerland has already signed up to.'” reports Business Week. “‘Switzerland is the EU’s third largest trading partner, and there are no clear legal or economic justifications for such a decision against eight EU member states,’ he said.”

Euronews cites a spokesperson for the EU Commission, Michael Mann: “It violates the agreement on free movement of people. There were exceptions for the new member states until 2011 but these exceptions are over now and according to us Switzerland does not have the right to make a difference between the different member states. We are 27, full stop.”

EUObserver reports: “EU countries have put up a united front against Swiss quotas on immigration from former Communist member states. Foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton on Wednesday (18 April) in a statement on behalf of the Union said the quotas are ‘in breach’ of a bilateral treaty on free movement of people, which “does not allow for any differentiation between EU citizens.”

Popular initiative brings high number of foreigners onto political stage

A part of the explanation for the move, not mentioned in the council’s statement but addressed by President Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, is concern over a vote in coming months on a popular initiative started by the right-wing UDC People’s Party, “Stop mass immigration”. It which calls for several measures that would reduce numbers of foreigners, discourage long-term permits, and limit foreigners mainly to the well educated.

Switzerland currently has about 1.1 million EU citizens out of a total population of 7.8 million, but overall foreigners make up close to one-quarter of the population. Switzerland, along with tiny Liechtenstein and Luxembourg, has had, for several years, the highest percentage of foreigners of any country in Europe.

Popular initiatives are often used by political groups to draw attention to issues; “stop massive immigration” is one of 10 in the past 12 months that gathered 100,000 signatures, enough to put them on the ballot. The government often takes a position on them but the process often takes years, from registering an initiative to the government reviewing and taking a stand on it, to the population voting.

Quotas just one part of the equation, says Bern – longer term measures needed

The quotas will provide only short-term relief, says the Federal Council, from economic issues related to immigration that require long-term solutions. Other measures announced Wednesday:

  • The Federal Council said Wednesday that it has asked the Federal Department of Economic Affairs (FDEA) “to develop concrete proposals to resolve the issue of non-compliance of subcontractors with minimum wage regulations and minimum working conditions.”
  • The FDEA and the Federal Justice and Police Department (FDJP) are being asked “to examine the possibility of having workers from all of the EU/EFTA States [to] report their wages upon entry into Switzerland to take up employment, when completing the formalities of registration with the authorities.”
  • the FDJP is being asked “to examine whether an additional increase in the contribution of the Confederation is advisable in the light of immigration from the EU/EFTA space” to “foster” integration, within a framework agreed to in 2011 by the federal and cantonal governments. “Cantonal integration programmes which are fine-tuned to the given situation of the individual canton and to the specific type of immigration” go into effect in 2014.