Bern / Prague Four times a year, voters in Switzerland go to the polls in a referendum on national affairs. On Sunday, they will decide, among other things, how their relationship with the European Union will develop. The Conservative Swiss People’s Party (GSP) proposal to restrict the free movement of persons from the Member States of the Union will be on the agenda of the referendum.
This is now, in fact, possible even though Switzerland, which does not belong to the 8 million million, does not belong to the EU and, unlike neighboring Liechtenstein, is not part of the European Economic Area (EEA). It allows other non-members of the 27, such as Iceland or Norway, to participate in the European internal market.
Swiss voters rejected this possibility in a referendum in 1992. However, given the country’s location, which is surrounded only by EEA members, the government in Bern sought to remove the barrier. It has been able to negotiate with Brussels several dozen bilateral agreements that have effectively involved the country in all key EU policies, including the internal market.
The end of one agreement will meet the others
Conservative people have always fought against it. Thanks to sharp anti-European and anti-immigration rhetoric, they have managed to develop from the fourth strongest party in the country to the first position in the last thirty years. Their word began to carry weight.
WHAT WILL JUST BE DECIDED
■ Purchase of new fighters
If voters approve the GSP proposal tomorrow, the government would have to negotiate with the EU the conditions for ending the free movement of its citizens in Switzerland. For a country that is dependent on close economic relations with the Union, this could have an impact in other areas as well.
Earlier, in negotiations with Bern, Brussels enforced the “guillotine rule”: If one of the agreements ceased to apply, all the others would end. These include, for example, agreements governing the mutual exchange of students or scientific cooperation, the mutual recognition of technical standards or the regulation of air traffic.
The People’s Party argues that the termination of the free movement agreement will free up hundreds of jobs now held, for example, by the Germans or Italy, which the Swiss will now be able to take on. They are also annoyed that the influx of foreigners from the EU abroad is leading to a deterioration in the living conditions of the local population: a lack of affordable housing, rising prices. Above all, however, that social benefits must be provided to foreigners.
Almost all other parties in parliament, as well as representatives of influential business associations or unions, opposed the GSP proposal. Everyone agrees that the end of free movement would have far-reaching consequences for the Swiss economy and would endanger hundreds of jobs. In other words, it would have the exact opposite effect to what the People’s Party has been promising since the draft was approved. Recent polls suggest that 63 percent of voters will reject the proposal and support the free movement of people.
Stagnation due to Brexit
Even due to growing opposition to the European Union among Swiss citizens, relations between Brussels and Bern have been strained for many years. The Union has wanted to negotiate new rules on mutual relations with Switzerland for several years. Also because he believes that the original agreements were too generous and allowed the Swiss to choose what suited them best.
However, talks with the Commission have stagnated in recent years, not least because the EU wanted to focus primarily on the Brexit negotiations and everything else had to wait.