A few months after the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting has ended, the invitations to next year’s event in Davos will be sent out. For the lucky ones invited, they may find that entering Switzerland is a lot easier compared with their fellow border-crossers who are hoping to find a home in the country. That’s because on Feb. 9 the Swiss are to vote on a constitutional amendment that would impose strict quotas on immigration from European Union countries.
The initiative, known as “Gegen Masseneinwanderung” (Stop mass immigration) and introduced by the nationalist Swiss People’s Party, or SVP, would re-establish annual quotas on the number of foreigners entering the country for work, ending the policy of free movement within the EU that was established in 2008. The initiative has alarmed some of the country’s largest companies as well as the current government, as they fear it could hurt a Swiss economy that has been doing considerably better than the economies of its European neighbors.
The figures for immigration to Switzerland are striking. Since 1980, the number of Swiss-born citizens has remained stable at around 5.4 million, but in the past 30 years the population has grown by more than 30 percent. Of these, 800,000 became citizens through naturalization, and another 1 million immigrated into the country. One out of four people in Switzerland is a foreigner, and every year a city the size of St. Gallen is created. (It will take two years for that city to reach the size of Geneva.)
If the trend continues, by 2035 10 million people will be living in Switzerland. This poses some serious problems, such as the ever-increasing burden on the social security system, the need for additional investment in infrastructure, booming rent prices and fears of higher than usual unemployment (the jobless rate currently stands at a very low 3 percent).
But, as the panelists at this year’s WEF Open Forum pointed out, the impact of immigration on Switzerland’s economy has been overwhelmingly positive, with many of the country’s trademark industries reliant on skilled foreign laborers.
“In Novartis, we have only 11 to 12 percent of Swiss nationals. People of more than 100 nationalities work for us,” says Felix Ehrat, the pharmaceutical company’s group general counsel.
Academia, construction, manufacturing, health care, agriculture—all of these industries have been dependent on foreign workers since the opening of Switzerland’s borders in 2008, if not even earlier. “We have a great need for highly skilled, well-trained people,” Ehrat says. “Not Swiss nationals or foreigners—we need the best in each sector.”
Jean-Claude Biver, chairman of Hublot, the luxury watch brand, gives an example: “In the watchmaking industry, 37 percent of the workers are French, crossing the border every day.” He adds, “The whole world has to learn from us. Learn how we integrate, take in foreigners.”
But the biggest fear among the business and government leaders at the Open Forum was that the proposed SVP initiative’s quotas would eliminate the freedom of movement agreement between Switzerland and the EU.
“The question is not what would be the effect for the country but how would the European Union react,” says one worried Swiss citizen, speaking as he rushed down a street in Zurich. Although Switzerland is not a member of the EU, it effectively has open borders with the bloc, thanks to the freedom of movement agreement.
Viviane Reding, vice president of the European Commission and the European commissioner for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship, recently warned in the Swiss newspaper Schweiz am Sonntag that the free-movement agreement would not be renegotiated if the SVP initiative is approved. Even if the maximum numbers for quotas are not imposed, there would be no chance of going back.
“When taking choices, we always have to think about possible consequences for the future generations,” says Didier Burkhalter, president of the Swiss Confederation.
Switzerland’s National Council has already rejected the initiative by 140 votes to 54, with one abstention; the Council of States by 37 votes to 5 with no abstentions. The SVP’s next gambit is the Feb. 9 referendum, but the current government is encouraging its citizens to say nein to the initiative. “Switzerland has to be in the driver seat, we need to be able to take our own decisions. But we also need to be held accountable for the consequences,” Burkhalter stresses.
“Without the world, there is no Switzerland,” he adds. “We will never be perfect—there will be compromises, and we, thank God, accept them. The winner takes it all, and the loser goes to war.”