November 4, 2014 / 1:28 PM / 3 years ago

Swiss shrink from radical limits on immigration in November vote

6 Min Read

Roped up climbers leave the summit of Breithorn at 4,164 metres (13,661 feet) on the ridge marking the border with Switzerland (left) and Italy in the Alpine resort of Zermatt August 4, 2014.Denis Balibouse

HORRENBACH-BUCHEN Switzerland (Reuters) - When 54-year-old Swiss politician Samuel Graber goes shopping, the sight of German rollmops and Polish sausage snatching shelf-space from more traditional fare like Emmental cheese is for him another sign that foreigners are overrunning the Alpine country.

Anti-immigration campaigning in countries such as Britain tends to focus on southern Europe or Africa. In Switzerland, however, activists also argue settlers from northern European states such as Germany, typically working in IT, finance and healthcare, help drive up house prices and erode Swiss culture.

"These people come to live here with us, and straight away, up pops a shop selling these things," said Graber, who is a member of the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP) and makes homemade cheese with milk from his herd of pedigree Swiss cows.

It was in his home of Horrenbach-Buchen, a rural community of 260 near Emmental, that an SVP-led referendum in February to reintroduce quotas on European Union immigrants found its strongest following, winning almost 94 percent of vote. Only eight people voted against the proposal, which passed nationwide by a narrow margin.

But even in the heartland of the SVP, which makes opposition to immigration a cornerstone of policy, residents of Horrenbach-Buchen are shrinking from new proposals to impose even more radical limits on immigration, worried they go too far and might scupper the first initiative.

Switzerland will vote on Nov. 30 on an initiative from the group Ecopop proposing an even tighter cap on the number of immigrants. The group says it is motivated by concerns about a lack of living space exerting too much pressure on the land and natural resources, rather than by opposition to foreigners.

It proposes limiting immigration to just 0.2 percent of the resident population, equivalent to 16,000 people per year. This would represent a cut of more than 75 percent in annual net immigration from current levels.

"There'll definitely be some years when 16,000 is too few people," said Reto Haldimann, an SVP representative who voted in favor of curbs in February but does not plan to vote yes again.

"But there will be years when it's clearly too many. It's too inflexible a system," Haldimann said.

Workers from European Union nations can move freely to Switzerland under a pact signed in 2002 if they have a contract.

Foreigners make up nearly a quarter of Switzerland's population of 8 million, an overwhelming majority of them from EU states. Italians are the largest group, followed by Germans.

Insecurity

In Switzerland's system of direct democracy, any voter can trigger a referendum by collecting 100,000 signatures within 18 months.

The initiative "Stop overpopulation - safeguard our natural resources" also calls for the earmarking of 10 percent of the Swiss development aid budget for voluntary family planning, aimed at staving off overpopulation overseas.

This, as well as the lack of funding for billboards that were omnipresent in February's anti-immigration push, is alienating some in Horrenbach-Buchen from the initiative.

The SVP party too is split over the proposals. Its top leaders have rejected the plans, but some regional branches have defected from the party line to voice support for Ecopop.

The Swiss government is still trying to implement February's vote without damaging its bilateral accords with the EU, of which free movement of people is a key component. The EU has said the pact is non-negotiable.

The EU and European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have also told EU member Britain that they would not look kindly on attempts by London to limit free movement.

If Ecopop becomes the second anti-immigration vote to pass in less than a year, it could be the death knell for agreements that would cut Switzerland off from favorable trade conditions and the pool of labor on which it relies.

"It's not going to be very easy to find a compromise with the EU for February's vote and continue with the bilaterals. This generates a lot of insecurity and that has created a new quality in the current discussion," said Georg Lutz, a professor of political science at the University of Lausanne.

A nationwide poll suggests November's vote will be rejected, with 58 percent saying they oppose the Ecopop initiative. Around a third of respondents to the survey by pollsters gfs.bern said the limits on immigration stipulated by the February vote were not sufficient.

However, some in Horrenbach-Buchen said the government should be given time to implement February's vote.

Graber, whose father was also a farmer, said some residents in the village might regret their vote in February as a step too far, though their concerns about immigration still linger.

"They might think they've made a mistake...but they wouldn't dare say it," he said over the tinkle of cowbells, adding that the best outcome would be a narrow rejection of the initiative. "That would give the government a warning shot, to let them know they need to take action."

Additional reporting by Ruben Sprich; Writing by Alice Baghdjian; Editing by Stephen Brown and Ralph Boulton

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