A version of this was first published by Le News, the free English-language weekly for the Lake Geneva region. This includes the cartoon by award-winning American artist Jeff Danziger – excellent cartoons on his website plus latest books.

The razor-edge win by Switzerland’s rightwing People Party (SVP) on 9 February, 2014 to curb immigration is bad news for those who see open borders as crucial, but also the nearly half million Swiss living and working in Europe because of the EU accords. At the same time, like it or not, this is the extraordinary thing about Swiss democracy. The Swiss people tend to respect it. Journalist and author Edward Girardet, who is also editor of Le News, explores the issues at hand.

The boat is full. Switzerland's right-wing response to immigration. Copyright Jeff Danziger.
The boat is full. Switzerland’s right-wing response to immigration. Copyright Jeff Danziger.

Geneva — While just under half the electorate did not get their way, a majority did pronounce on two other key issues, notably more investment for the railways and a refusal to allow only women with private insurance or the means to pay to seek abortions. Swiss Rail will now have the funds to move ahead with critical improvements for social and environmental reasons, but also to ensure that it remains efficient.

An Afghan friend recently asked why democracy works in Switzerland. “We’re also a mountain people and just as conservative,” he said. “But our politicians don’t play by the rules. Why can’t we be like the Swiss?” You probably have to be Swiss to make alpine democracy works, I told him. Bern, which vehemently opposed the UDC initiative, will now have to respect the wishes of the majority. This means figuring out how to negotiate a new arrangement, which may prove impossible if the EU refuses to play ball, or to implement a consensus that responds to the wishes of 50.3% of the voters.

Clearly, there is nothing stopping a new pro-EU initiative from being launched with more effective outreach that pragmatically explains why closed borders could provoke precisely the opposite, notably less investment, less wealth generation and less employment. Or that pulling up the gangplank as a sop to right-wing political rhetoric is not an informed solution. That, too, is Swiss democracy.

For the moment, however, there is concern all round. The European Union has warned that Switzerland’s narrow vote (50.3%) to curb immigration could seriously impede economic relations with the 28-member community. Given that the EU represents its main trading partner, the country could suffer a dire impact on business and jobs, a view widely shared by its main cities and backbone industries. The position of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, which sounds uncomfortably like the name of another political party north of border in Germany from the 1930s, could also open a trashcan of worms with regard to other countries with constituencies favouring similar curbs on immigration.

According to EU ambassador to Berne, Richard Jones, much depends on how Switzerland intends to implement the referendum’s requirements. “No member state is ready to draw a line on the freedom of movement,” Jones told the Tribune de Genève. However, if Switzerland did proceed in a manner unacceptable to European norms, he warned, this could provoke repercussions, including the loss of subsidies, such as the annual EUR 50 million provided to Geneva University. Another EU representative added that Europe cannot afford special cases. “If we did, then other countries might seek similar arrangements,” he noted. “People are getting fed up with Switzerland’s constant demands for special status”. Possibly as a result of the vote, EU-Swiss negotiations on cross-border electricity appear to have been frozen.

Quotas could also affect the estimated 430,000 Swiss living and working in the EU. The same goes for frontaliers. Cities such as Geneva, Basel and Lugano rely heavily on skilled outside labour to run their public services and industries, particularly banking, pharma, watches, farming and high-tech. SVP vice-president Luzi Stamm told Swiss radio that the frontaliere policy (dealing with foreigners living in neighbouring France, Germany, Italy and Austria) should be determined at cantonal level. He also stated that farmers could keep foreign labourers, but without families sparking memories of the awful Gastarbeiter days of the 1950s, 60s and 70s when Switzerland ran a restricted – and exceedingly disgraceful – foreign workers policy reminiscent of South African or Israeli-style economic apartheid.

According to some Swiss, the vote, which found its broadest support in the more conservative parts of German-speaking Switzerland, represents a combination of nationalism, fear and reluctance to embrace change. The Italian-speaking Ticino also backed it, but for different reasons. This includes feeling ignored by the rest of Switzerland, but also concerned by growing influxes of foreigners, which prevented their families from joining them and kicked them out when no longer needed.

The irony, however, is that most problems associated with immigration are found in Switzerland’s major cities. Yet rural Swiss who supported the initiative benefit from the thriving economy. Some commentators now suggest that quotas should be lower for those areas with a strong ‘yes’ vote, while Geneva and Basel have a larger quotas. Stamm dismissed this as ridiculous. When asked about institutions like the CHUV, one of Switzerland’s leading hospitals of world renown, with 40% foreign staff, he said Swiss in their 60s or retired could replace them.

Fellow People’s Party politician Christophe Blocher who said Brussels needs to know “that the people have spoken,” also lambasted the French-Swiss for refusing to support the initiative. Some French-speakers suggest that the Swiss cantons of Geneva and Vaud, which border France, reach their own accords with the EU, an indication of a broadening of Switzerland’s linguistic divide, the “Röschtigraben“ between the dominant German speakers or the north and the more ‘Latin’ south.

Edward Girardet is based in the Lake Geneva region.