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Back to the Future

Politics // By WRS // Feb. 25, 2015

As concerns mount over Switzerland’s tough new line on immigration we investigate the impact on local expats – on both sides of the border. Will quotas for foreign workers, including EU citizens, block employment opportunities and create a climate of “us and them”? Or will the Swiss find a way to build bridges with their neighbours?

Photo courtesy of the Service du Parlement. Back to the Future

Too much, too soon. That was the warning from the eurosceptics when the Swiss-EU agreement on free movement of people came into force in 2002. In fact it’s a credit to the tolerance of the Swiss that it was not until February 2014 that the issue of mass immigration finally met its match at the public ballot box. However, few had predicted the extent of the mandate. Rather than a vote signalling concern to the Bern government, the Swiss went for direct action – a fixed cap on the number of EU and other foreign nationals arriving to live and work in Switzerland. This means job quotas and restrictions on recruitment and residency - demolishing in one swing of public opinion more than 100 Swiss-Europe trade and market agreements. Now the issue on immigration and employment is all about quotas - “how many, how soon?”

"Excessiveness harms! Stop mass immigration" - Swiss People’s Party campaign slogan February 2014

While only 50.3% of Swiss actually backed “quantative limits to immigration” in the referendum on that chilly winter weekend, it was enough for the Right-wing to claim a victory. It also highlighted traditional divisions, with French speakers rejecting the quotas, Italian-speaking Ticino in favour and Swiss Germans in the cities more concerned about immigration than those in the villages. Tiny, landlocked Switzerland is known as a country of asylum but paradoxically also a nation afraid of being “swamped” by foreigners – who now account for a fifth of the population. 

While only 50.3% of Swiss actually backed “quantative limits to immigration” in the referendum on that chilly winter weekend, it was enough for the Right-wing to claim a victory. It also highlighted traditional divisions, with French speakers rejecting the quotas, Italian-speaking Ticino in favour and Swiss Germans in the cities more concerned about immigration than those in the villages. Tiny, landlocked Switzerland is known as a country of asylum but paradoxically also a nation afraid of being “swamped” by foreigners – who now account for a fifth of the population. It was against this background that the Swiss voted for a new admissions system for all foreign nationals and a cap on immigration. Not only does this impact on recruitment and employment contracts but it also obliges the Swiss to renegotiate all of its freedom of movement treaties with the EU – covering goods, services and capital, as well as people. For local expats the obvious questions hang in the air. Will quotas be “flexible”? To what extent will new legislation impact on those already living and working in Switzerland? How will the status of frontaliers be affected? Will it be increasingly difficult to recruit skilled non-Swiss staff?


When the conservative Swiss People’s Party launched its initiative to limit mass immigration at the end of 2013 the government was caught napping. Federal Councillors offered a poorly-organised opposition, underestimating support for the vote and insisting that people still recognised the importance of foreigner workers to the Swiss economy, as they had in a similar 2009 referendum. Meanwhile Christoph Blocher, the wealthy Swiss industrialist who effectively heads the SPP, was carefully shaping a media campaign. The SPP are the majority party in government and its members set about turning a quiet groundswell of concern into a vocal Yes. But although Bern is now obliged to draft legislation based on the popular initiative, it is conspicuously dragging its heels. Parliament has three years to convert the constitutional amendment into quotas for immigrants, regardless of nationality, as well as crossborder commuters. Renegotiation with the EU common market will undoubtedly stall the strong Swiss economy and business leaders claim that free movement is essential in recruiting skilled staff, especially from the EU. 

"Quotas will apply to all types of permit valid for four months or more. To meet the needs of the labour market, it is planned to foster and exploit the potential of the workforce already available in Switzerland"  - Federal Council, Bern June 2014

Since 2002 most of the EU’s 500 million people have been on an equal basis with locals in the Swiss job market. The right of free movement includes the mutual recognition of professional qualifications, the right to buy property and the coordination of social security systems. As the EU opened its doors to ten new member states, Switzerland was obliged to do the same, with certain initial restrictions.

Ironically it was a referendum in 2000 that had agreed this policy. Previously Swiss employers had battled to recruit skilled workers from Europe and overseas under a restrictive permit system. Quotas had loomed large also for French frontalier workers who crossed the border daily under a bilateral Franco-Swiss agreement. However, while EU free movement created a valuable pool for bosses, critics pointed to unforeseen pressure on accommodation, health services, schools and public transport. The Swiss People’s Party put it more strongly. They claimed jobs and salaries were under threat in overcrowded cities.

Has Switzerland shot itself in the foot by rejecting the EU? Will the backlash hit the economy? Although definitely annoyed by the Swiss volte-face, it’s unlikely that the EU will react with an exclusion policy. Economic growth is running at 2% in Switzerland, making it an important customer for EU goods and services. Political stability also adds to the country’s attraction as a friendly neighbour and so far there has been little fallout. For example, an apparent knee-jerk reaction to exclude Swiss students from the European Erasmus exchange programme has since been settled with an interim solution called Swiss-European Mobility.

How will the new quotas impact on EU citizens already living in Switzerland? While C permit holders will see no change, there are definitely implications for those with L or B permits. If these people are made unemployed they will have only six months to job hunt and/or claim benefits. After that the permit can be withdrawn, unless there is proof of independent financial means. Family members wishing to join permit holders will also see their rights “revised”. In 2013 this group made up 32.2% of all new immigrants to Switzerland, and more than half were from the EU. Now there must be proof of adequate accommodation (to “Swiss standards”) and self-employed workers must show sufficient finances to support their family. Non-EU citizens face even tougher rules. Across the board the government has also blocked all new applications for long-term Swiss residency permits. These remain frozen until a new government protocol is in place. Whether Switzerland will be asked to withdraw from the Schengen passport-free zone also remains to be seen.

But despite the new quotas the government has cleverly allowed room for manoeuvre. Employment of foreign nationals should take into account “the global economic interests of Switzerland.” So the immigration cap could be set deliberately high to accommodate the workforce that will fuel those interests? Unlikely, but discussions are on-going. However, there will undoubtedly be implications for foreign workers living in Geneva, Lausanne and Nyon and for crossborder employees based in neighbouring France.


"Enemies of Genevans! Cross-border workers: enough! Give Genevans hiring priority!" - Geneva Citizens Movement 2014

Geneva Citizens Movement, the second largest party in canton Geneva and gaining, has nailed its colours to the mast. The 70,000 people crossing local borders to work in Switzerland every day were its prime target in recent local government elections. Representing almost a quarter of the workforce in the Lake Geneva region – frontaliers were traditionally indispensible to the city’s infrastructure. However, numbers have grown dramatically with the EU Freedom of Movement accords and now the anti-Europe GCM is blaming them for rising unemployment. Its sister party in Vaud is no less vocal:

"The wave of workers coming from France leads to the degradation of infrastructure, increases pollution, puts pressure on salaries and forces many of our citizens onto social welfare." - Geneva Citizens Movement 2014 

Although this comment is completely unsubstantiated, there’s no doubt that crossborder workers do provoke a response. On the one hand Switzerland needs qualified, professional staffing for large enterprises in sectors such as pharmaceuticals, as well as for the HUG hospital in Geneva and CHUV in Lausanne. On the other, there is a perception that frontaliers have an unfair advantage, profiting from lower rents and living costs in France while failing to put any part of their salary back into the Swiss economy. True or not in the past, the French government has recently redressed the balance with hikes in frontalier taxation and public health contributions.  

There’s also no reason to link Geneva’s rising 5.5% unemployment rate – the highest in Switzerland – to the concept of cross border workers “stealing” jobs from locals. At least not according to Jean-François Besson, head of Annemasse lobby group the Groupement Transfrontalier Européen:

"This workforce has been indispensible to the phenomenal development of Geneva over the last few years and has not taken away jobs from the Swiss. In fact the unemployed Swiss are often not qualified for the jobs available in the region." - Groupement Transfrontalier Européen 2014


Lake Geneva’s Voice (LGV) asked the Geneva Economic Development Office to outline the impact of new immigrations limits and quotas on the recruitment of EU citizens and other foreign nationals. Here, Director Daniel Loeffler (DL) replies:  

"No impact is to be expected in the short term." 

Indeed, the constitutional article approved by referendum must be implemented through an enforcement law that has yet to be drafted (there is a three year deadline to do so). Hence, so far, the Agreement on Free Movement of Persons remains in force, until the legal position changes.

LGV: In this context, do you expect new restrictions on frontalier workers?  

DL: Foreign nationals from the EU/EFTA area who already live in Switzerland or work here as frontaliers will still be able to live or work in Switzerland. Permits that have already been issued remain valid. The Agreement on Free Movement expressly provides that even if the Agreement is terminated, existing rights will continue to apply (Art. 23 FMA). The new system will only affect foreign nationals who want to move to Switzerland after the new legal provisions come into force.

LGV: Do you think that foreign workers could now find integration into the Geneva area more difficult and face perceived discrimination? 

DL: Fighting discrimination of any kind has always been a priority for Geneva’s government. However, we haven’t noticed any change of behaviour from either companies or people.

LGV: Is it possible to anticipate the response of the EU to the measures that the Swiss government must now put in place? 

DL: The Federal Council and Swiss federal departments for Justice and Police and Foreign Affairs are closely cooperating with the European Union on this subject. Updated information and FAQs can be found on their website: www.admin.ch 

LGV: What will be the key challenges to business development in the Geneva region over the next five years? 

DL: Geneva’s government is strongly committed to reinforce Geneva’s position as a global leader in several key economic sectors such as banking and finance, commodity trading, life sciences, information and communication technologies, fine watchmaking and jewellery as well as cleantech.

LGV: Does the recent referendum further isolate Switzerland from the EU and how will this impact on market access? 

DL: The Geneva Economic Development Office still has great success in its strategic fields, most notably with the establishment in Geneva of several new American and Asian companies, creating numerous new job positions.


To find out how you see the new quotas and limits on Swiss immigration LGV went out on the streets of Geneva. We spoke to Englishspeaking expats and Swiss, gauging public opinion about the recent vote. Here are some of the forthright responses

"It’s a negative for Swiss EU relations."

"More paperwork, more unemployment and fewer opportunities."

"My job contract may not be renewed and finding another position will be harder."

"My job contract may not be renewed and finding another position will be harder."

"I don’t think professionals and Anglophones will have too many issues but it will be harder for others and asylum seekers." 

"Frontaliers will be treated worse than Swiss nationals. And if that happens then salaries will be reduced and working rights threatened."

"Pensions and healthcare are always the first things to be affected... and by that I mean they will become more expensive." 

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