Swiss referendum on immigrationThe Swiss against the world
In Switzerland, it seems, the future is still bright for tax dodging, but not for lodging. What reads quite well in German as a witty pun on the verbs "hinterziehen" (to dodge) and "hinziehen" (to move to a place) is in reality not quite as harsh as it seems. The government in Berne now has three years to implement the outcome of the referendum "No to Mass Immigration", and that's plenty of time to come up with pragmatic solutions, such as immigrant quotas or even a new referendum.
Switzerland has in fact not said "no" to immigration, but only "yes" to its reduction. There is a difference, especially considering that in recent years, this small country has witnessed a net intake of 80,000 people. With a population of 8 million, this means that its population has grown ten per cent in just one decade.
This naturally creates objective problems, for example on the housing market. In short: it's not hard to imagine why the Swiss would want to curb immigration, even those who are not by any means resentful xenophobes. By comparison, the immigration rate in Germany is about half as high, and in Austria it is lower still.
Nevertheless, we shouldn't take this vote too lightly either, because most of those who support the anti-immigration initiative were not necessarily motivated by such "objective" problems. Looking at the results in detail, approval for a curb on immigration was particularly high in those regions and parts of the country where there is virtually no immigration. By contrast, in metropolitan areas and other places where immigration is concentrated (and whose citizens must be feeling the negative impact, for example on the housing market), the majority voted against the initiative. Here as well, however, a relatively strong minority voted in favour.
Their motives are indeed complex. The majority view in Switzerland leans to the right, with the right-wing populist SVP and its allied media poisoning the public discourse. Some of those who approved probably did so because they are simply "against foreigners". Admittedly, xenophobia in Switzerland – unlike, for example, in Germany – does not "merely" target underprivileged immigrants, it targets the privileged ones too. To put it plainly, not only the Pakistani asylum-seeker is a target of resentment in Switzerland, so too is the German academic who manages to get a professorship in Zurich.
What's more, in the minds of the Swiss, the "free movement of persons" and open borders are inextricably linked with the European Union, and anti-EU opinions are widespread in Switzerland today. Not even EU supporters openly advertise their position in Switzerland; they know that there is simply no point. Only about 20 per cent of Swiss citizens can imagine their country joining the EU. The vast majority has quiet reservations about – if they are not openly hostile to – the EU.
This attitude often takes on a paranoid quality: for many Swiss citizens, the EU is almost like an empire that is besieging their country from all sides. When they think of the EU, they see, for example, those big-mouthed Germans who want to tell the Swiss what to do. The essentially amiable Swiss spirit of resistance bristles at the very thought. In the vote against open borders, there was undoubtedly a hint of an "anti-EU" vote too.
Switzerland is different. In its identity and its citizens' self-image, it is the small mountain confederation that has always stood up to those larger than itself – to the world out there. And it has done so with and because of its singularity, for example its peculiar form of direct democracy.
David versus Goliath
The other side of the coin is a kind of self-righteous meanness of which the Swiss are also capable, the self-righteous meanness of someone who sees himself as a persecuted innocent, the little fellow at the mercy of the giants, who rails against the injustice of it all when he himself makes a mess of things and is scolded for it. All this has certainly played into the vote, in which quite appealing qualities intermingled with rather vile motivations to produce a result that, at 50.3 per cent, was also the narrowest of margins.
The vote itself, of course, raises a number of tricky questions. Unlike, say, the "anti-minaret" initiative or the "expulsion" initiative (which was about accelerating deportations), there can be no doubt that the current vote does not conflict with the protection of minorities. Direct democracy can so easily come into conflict with the protection of minorities when a majority decides to discriminate against a minority. Here, however, that is not really the case: non-Swiss, who have not yet immigrated into the country, and whose future immigration is to be prevented, are not yet a minority that can be discriminated against.
The matter is much more complicated with regard to the integration of Switzerland into the EU internal market. By concluding a series of treaties, Switzerland has achieved practical parity within this market. The free movement of persons, including the right of all EU citizens to move to Switzerland, is an integral part of these treaties. So Switzerland cannot simply terminate the aspect of the agreements it doesn't like and believe that the other aspects can remain intact.
Theoretically, one could now simply say to Switzerland: "Well, that's not the way it works, friends". Understandably, however, EU leaders are still holding back, because that would be exactly the kind of EU commandment that always raises Swiss hackles.
© Qantara.de 2014
Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor
Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de