Swiss voters will decide on Sunday whether to tear up a pact with the European Union on the free movement of people, after a referendum campaign that exposed rifts in society over foreigners who make up a quarter of the population.
The Swiss People’s Party (SVP) – the biggest in parliament – is leading the charge to seize back control of immigration, echoing some of the arguments pro-Brexit politicians used in the run-up to Britain’s exit from the EU.
Opinion polls suggest it will not be so successful. A gfs.bern poll found 63% of respondents opposed the SVP proposal and 35% supported it, suggesting voters want stability at a time of economic uncertainty amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Nevertheless, the SVP has appealed to those who see their culture at risk from immigration, which by the middle of the century could swell the population to 10 million from 8.6 million now.
The party says jobs are at risk as young foreigners supplant older Swiss, housing gets scarcer and dearer, schools and transport become overcrowded and construction swallows up the landscape.
“Migrants change our culture. Public squares, trains and streets become more unsafe. In addition, practically half of all welfare recipients are foreigners,” its campaign website says.
Opponents warn the plan would rob business of skilled workers – especially in healthcare, or for drugmakers like Roche and Novartis – and torpedo accords that enhance Swiss access to the crucial EU single market.
The foreign influx is apparent at soccer club FC Uster near Zurich, where kids from immigrant families make up 60% of 13- and 14-year-old players, said club official Ali Özcan, whose own parents migrated from Turkey.
Of the 60%, a fifth are from EU and European Free Trade Association (EFTA) countries.
“Without immigrants Swiss soccer in general – professional or amateur, youth or women – would not be able to exist,” he told Reuters, citing arrivals from the Balkans, Africa, and Middle East.
He said European expatriates tended to prioritise children’s intellectual development and often planned to return home after Swiss stays.
Between the start of free movement in 2002 and 2019, the population rose by 1.3 million. Immigration contributed 1 million people, around 750,000 of whom were from the EU.
Citizens of the EU plus EFTA members Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein made up 68% of the 2.1 million resident foreigners in 2019. Italy, Germany and Portugal had the biggest communities. More than 450,000 Swiss live in the EU.
Wealthy Switzerland is used to absorbing foreigners drawn by high-paying jobs, including those that few Swiss want.
But the SVP has tried to put some limits on movement, including the “Mass Immigration Initiative” of 2014 that approved quotas on immigration from the EU, though to the party’s chagrin it was watered down in parliament.
Voters decided to ban new minarets in 2009, reflecting suspicion among some Swiss of the Muslim community, and isolated cases of Muslim pupils’ refusal to shake hands with female teachers have sparked outrage in the media.
Should the referendum drive fail, the government sees a window to tackle its biggest foreign policy headache: a stalled EU treaty that would mean Bern routinely adopts single market rules but which has run afoul of critics who say it infringes too much on Swiss sovereignty.