Switzerland will vote on Sunday whether to end its agreement with the EU on the free movement of people, in a referendum with echoes of the pro-Brexit campaign that led to Britain’s decision to leave the bloc.
The largest party in the Swiss parliament, the rightwing, anti-immigration Swiss People’s party (SVP), has called for the vote, arguing that the country must be allowed to set its own limit on the number of foreigners coming in to work.
However, polls forecast the SVP will not be successful, with one this week finding 63% of respondents opposed the party’s proposal – suggesting voters want stability at a time of economic uncertainty amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Non-nationals account for roughly a quarter of Switzerland’s 8.6 million inhabitants and continuing immigration is forecast to swell the population to about 10 million over the next 30 years.
“Migrants change our culture,” the SVP’s referendum campaign website says. “Public squares, trains and streets become less safe. In addition, practically half of all welfare recipients are foreigners.”
The party says unemployment among Swiss nationals will inevitably rise as young foreigners are recruited to replace older Swiss workers, housing costs will increase, and schools, transport and public services will be overwhelmed.
Opponents say tearing up its free movement accord with the EU would rob the country of skilled workers and above all endanger the complex network of more than 120 bilateral treaties that Switzerland – a non-member – has with the bloc.
Besides allowing EU nationals to work in Switzerland, the treaties include agreements considered vital by Swiss businesses on free trade, data exchange, agriculture, research, police cooperation, civil aviation, road transport, tourism, education and pensions.
The government has said that if voters reject free movement, another six agreements that remove key barriers between Switzerland and the EU in trade, transport and other areas would also cease to apply under a so-called “guillotine clause”.
Citizens of the EU plus Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein made up 68% of Switzerland’s 2.1 million resident foreigners last year. The largest communities were from Italy, Germany and Portugal. More than 450,000 Swiss live in the EU.
The SVP has tried before to limit free movement, narrowly winning a 2014 referendum demanding immigration quotas. To the party’s fury, the initiative was subsequently watered down, promoting a degree of local preference in some economic sectors but crucially imposing no fixed limits.
The EU has not shifted on free movement since that referendum and remains categorical that any rejection of the principle by Switzerland would result in the country being excluded from the single market.