Swiss battle offers clues for Brexit

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at 2016.10.23
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Swiss battle offers clues for Brexit

Swiss conservatives cheered in February 2014 when the country defied Brussels and voted narrowly for controls on immigration from neighbouring countries.

But negotiations with the EU, with which the affluent Alpine state has close economic ties although it is not a member, started badly. Then the British voted for Brexit, enormously raising the stakes of any negotiations and scuppering any chance of the deal conservatives wanted.

“Our government and parliament have decided not to implement this [Swiss] vote; they simply ignored the referendum,” Albert Rösti, president of the ultra-conservative Swiss People’s Party (SVP) said. “I was very angry … It is really a historic situation.”

The SVP is one of Europe’s longest established and most successful nationalist movements, guided largely by Christoph Blocher, the veteran businessman who in 1992 successfully campaigned against Swiss membership of the European Economic Area, a step to EU membership. Mr Rösti is one of a younger generation of SVP leaders determined to preserve Swiss sovereignty — but who is discovering the difficulties of seeking a “bespoke” arrangements with the EU.

“It doesn’t make sense for the EU to offer Switzerland an agreement anything like what the SVP wants — the stakes are just too high,” said Max Stern, co-founder of Foraus, a Swiss foreign policy forum. “After Brexit, it [the EU] will have to work out its future institutional arrangements with non-members, but that will take years.”

Over the decades, Switzerland has struck more than 120 bilateral deals with the EU — including on the free movement of people, a cherished principle for Europe’s leaders. With its economy flourishing, foreigners comprise almost a quarter of its 8.3m population. However, the February 2014 vote in favour of immigration limits and quotas reflected voters’ fears that uncontrolled inflows were disadvantaging locals and overwhelming Swiss infrastructure and public services.

The government in Bern had three years to implement the vote, but violating the principle of the free movement of people risked other bilateral deals being cancelled. Last month, the lower house of the Swiss parliament agreed on a plan that would simply encourage the employment of local workers, for instance, by requiring vacancies to be notified to local job centres. The plan is likely to be backed broadly by the upper chamber in December. It still might not satisfy Brussels, which worries foreigners will still face discrimination, but Mr Rösti argues it already goes completely against the spirit of the 2014 vote. “I don’t think it will reduce immigration at all,” he said.

It is not the end of the battle for the SVP, which is the country’s most popular party but which has to operate within a consensus-based political system. Sat on a plush armchair in Bern’s ornate parliament building, Mr Rösti argued that Switzerland should be emboldened by the Brexit vote. “After Brexit, Switzerland could have negotiated with more confidence … We could have pointed out that if the EU doesn’t solve this problem [uncontrolled immigration], it will fall apart.”

The UK prime minister Theresa May has put heavy-hitting opponents of the EU in top government posts dealing with Brussels, he noted. “How the UK is doing it is perfect, you send in the biggest Brexit supporters and let them negotiate.”

The threat of its existing bilateral deals being cancelled is overstated, Mr Rösti believes. Like UK Brexiters, Mr Rösti he said the EU’s economic interests lie in amicable agreements with near neighbours. But the bilaterals “are not so important as to be worth losing our independence”. As such, Switzerland offers a model for the UK. “I don’t think the EU is strong enough not to have good relations with the UK through bilateral arrangements — that’s my judgment.”

The SVP’s main focus will now be on using future referendums to advance its cause. It wants a constitutional clause making clear the primacy of Swiss law over foreign agreements. More urgently, the Swiss government is expected this week to respond to a campaign by SVP opponents to have the 2014 immigration vote reversed. It is unlikely Bern will back the so-called “out of the cul-de-sac” initiative. Instead, it will probably suggest another referendum on the modest measures agreed by parliament. That referendum may not be held until at least the end of next year, Mr Rösti reckoned. But it will re-escalate Switzerland’s conflict with Brussels, as well as the SVPs domestic struggles. “There will be a big fight in Switzerland,” he promised.

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Published at Sun, 23 Oct 2016 04:30:00 +0000

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