On 16 December 2016, the Swiss Parliament passed a balanced immigration law (the Federal Act on Foreign Nationals) which addresses its voters’ wish to curb immigration while hopes to maintain the country’s privileged access to the Single Market.
‘Against Mass Immigration’ Referendum
In February 2014, 56.6% of the Swiss electorate took part in a referendum vote to cap EU immigration, following the popular initiative ‘Stop Mass Immigration’ launched by the national conservative Swiss People’s Party. 50.3% of those who voted supported this initiative, which proposed to introduce a new provision into the Swiss Federal Constitution to impose limits on migration into Switzerland, to re-introduce quotas for foreigners and privilege Swiss nationals over foreigners in the labour market. The referendum also called for the renegotiation of the EU-Swiss Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons with the EU (AFMP).
The Internal Market and its four freedoms are indivisible
The EU reacted to this referendum outcome and to the implementation concept presented by the Swiss Government saying that the “free movement of persons is a fundamental pillar of EU Policy and that the internal market and its four freedoms are indivisible” (Council conclusions, General Affairs Council meeting, 16 December 2014). The EU further noted that the planned amendment to the Swiss Federal Constitution to restrict free movement of EU citizens would undermine the core of EU-Switzerland relations and automatically exclude Switzerland from the single market. In addition, this could have negative implications for many other bilateral agreements in place between the EU and Switzerland, which are all linked by a so-called “guillotine clause” whereby if one is violated, they all collapse.
A compromise solution
In the hope of finding a compromise that would appease Brussels while addressing the result of the 2014 referendum to cap EU immigration, the Swiss Parliament passed an immigration law which avoids outright quotas on EU immigrants, which the referendum had demanded, but instead prioritises Swiss job seekers over EU citizens. On the same day, the Swiss Federal Council ratified the Protocol providing for Croatia’s accession to the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons with the EU (AFMP) between the EU and Switzerland. As a result of this ratification, Switzerland will again be fully eligible to participate in the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation funding programme and can resume its negotiations with the EU concerning its participation in the Erasmus+ programme, which had been suspended as a penalty for its restrictions on freedom of movement.
The European Commission has welcomed this positive move by Switzerland, but insists that it wants more guarantees on how freedom of movement of EU citizens will be preserved under the new provisions. Specifically, the Commission wants more clarity on access to information about job vacancies and the rights of frontier workers.