Could Swiss vote spur a rethink on EU barriers to migration?

Much of Europe has been weighing ways to reduce so-called welfare tourism from poorer EU nations. Switzerland's support for quotas on EU migrants may spur a new debate on labor mobility.

Thomas Hodel/Reuters
Swiss Interior Minister Alain Berset, Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga, and President and Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter attend a news conference Monday regarding results of a referendum on reintroducing immigration quotas.

The European Union has bristled at the Swiss decision to end the free flow of Europeans coming to work in their country.

The EU fears the vote, which came down in a narrowly won referendum Sunday, complicates the relationship between the bloc and Switzerland, which is not a member state but has signed many treaties adopting EU policy. More broadly, European loyalists also fear that it reflects growing euroskepticism and could, in turn, boost anti-immigrant parties.

But could the political currents in Switzerland carry the Europe debate in a different direction and cause Europeans to think twice about curbs on migration?

Freedom of movement vis-à-vis so-called welfare tourism has been the topic du jour, since several European countries ended labor restrictions for Bulgarians and Romanians on Jan. 1. It has caused politicians from Britain to Germany to the Netherlands to question whether open-door policies are straining public services.

All EU citizens have the right to work anywhere within the 28-member bloc. This freedom is cherished by many Europeans, most of whom could also work freely in Switzerland under previous policies.  

So this referendum certainly resonates with more people than “welfare tourism.” After all, it’s easier for policymakers and thought leaders to relate to a middle-class European – or even a chief executive, academic, or scientist – barred from Switzerland than to a poor Roma family recently arrived in Germany.

“We are all affected.… This is not welfare migration, but real work migration, which is the core idea of European integration. It goes to the hearts of many people, theoretically,” says Klaus Zimmermann, the director of the Institute for the Study of Labor in Bonn, Germany.

But he is more doubtful about whether this could give the defenders of EU integration the upper hand, because there is still the risk that the welfare tourism debate will balloon into a larger one about labor migration.

“The danger with the welfare migration debate is that it’s not so much about welfare migration, but there is a danger that it’s misused to debate labor mobility. That’s what we see now” in Switzerland, says Dr. Zimmermann. “Other countries might say, if Switzerland, such a rich country, feels threatened, we should feel threatened, too.”

In fact, far-right groups across Europe swiftly hailed the Swiss referendum result. And Toni Brunner, chairman of the far-right Swiss People’s Party, the group that promoted the referendum, proclaimed to the Neue Nurcher newspaper: “Switzerland is playing the role of a pioneer for the whole of Europe now.”

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