Swiss grapple with identity, economy in immigration vote

Tue Feb 4, 2014 7:35am EST
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By Caroline Copley

WINTERTHUR, Switzerland (Reuters) - Low taxes and good infrastructure aside, what entrepreneur Thorsten Schwenke really needs to grow his small Swiss-based business is the right people, regardless of their nationality.

That's why he is so bewildered by a vote in Switzerland on February 9 on whether to impose restrictions on immigrants from the European Union, and by the proposal's increasing popularity in a country where foreign labor helped forge a powerful economy.

"If I was forced to only consider hiring Swiss people, I would just move," said 41-year-old Schwenke, who founded Thelkin, a maker of mechanical testing equipment for orthopedic implants in the northeastern town of Winterthur in 2010.

"For a company my size, the right people are more important than the tax benefits."

A vote in favor of the motion, 12 years after a free movement of people agreement with the European Union came into force, could hurt an economy reliant on foreign professionals by increasing red tape and calling into question its bilateral accords with the bloc.

Hailing from Berlin, Schwenke is one in a long line of foreign entrepreneurs who have helped power Switzerland's economic success story over the past 150 years, including German-born Henri Nestle who gave his name to the company that is now the world's largest food group.

But with net immigration running at around 70,000 people per year on average - equivalent to the size of St. Gallen, a university town in eastern Switzerland - many Swiss blame newcomers for rising rents, crowded transport and more crime.

The right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP), which wants Switzerland to seize back control by reintroducing immigration quotas, is tapping into concerns immigrants are eroding the country's Alpine culture and bolstering the 'yes' vote.   Continued...

A poster against the 'mass immigration initiative' of the Swiss Socalist Party SPS is seen through barbed wire fence on the Federal Square before a campaign in Bern January 29, 2014. REUTERS/Ruben Sprich