Open Europe Blog

We suspect the reverberations from the decision in the Swiss referendum to cap the number of EU migrants might be felt for some time (we look at what the long term implications could be for the UK here). The Swiss case is interesting because unlike the debate on migrants from Central and Eastern Europe in the UK, Germany and the Netherlands, it primarily affects citizens of the wealthier member states, primarily Germany, France and Italy. Here are some immediate reactions from around Europe.

The tone from the Berlin has been quite tough with Steffan Seibert, Merkel’s spokesperson commenting that:

“The government takes note of the result and respects it but it is also the case, in our view, that it throws up considerable problems… It’s in our interest to keep EU-Swiss relations as close as possible.”

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD) added that “I believe that with this result Switzerland has harmed itself”. He also dusted off the classic line so beloved of his predecessor in the post:

“there can be no cherry-picking when it comes to the EU” 

The new FDP leader Christian Linder echoed this sentiment arguing that “The Swiss are taking from the European buffet only that what they want” (which is kind of the point of a buffet). Interestingly however he added that he was “open-minded” about having more referenda in Germany.

Meanwhile Alternative für Deutschland leader Bernd Lucke didn’t explicitly argue for capping EU migration although he struck a different tone compared with the established German parties, arguing that:

“Irrespective of the result of the Swiss referendum we can also achieve in Germany an immigration law which is based on qualifications and he ability to integrate while preventing benefits migration… If necessary we could have such referendums [in Germany].”

The least diplomatic response came from Ralf Stegner, leader of the SPD faction in Schleswig-Holstein who took to twitter to describe the Swiss as “crazy”.

The response in France has also been quite tough with Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius arguing that:

“This is bad news for Europe and the Swiss, because Switzerland will be penalised from withdrawing into itself… There’s a so-called ‘guillotine clause’ establishing that if one of the elements [of the Swiss-EU bilateral deal] is put into question – in this case, the free movement of workers – everything falls down. Therefore, this means we’ll have to renegotiate […] This means we’re going to reconsider our relations with Switzerland.”

Former French PM Fillon (UMP) was commented that:

“It would be totally incomprehensible if Switzerland put a barrier to the access of cross-border workers… On the other hand, that [Switzerland] wants to reduce the overall number of foreigners on its territory is a perfectly natural demand.”

Italy’s Foreign Minister Emma Bonino said that:

“The impact [of the Swiss referendum] is undoubtedly very worrying, with regard to both Italy and the other agreements with the EU.” 

Matteo Salvini, the leader of Lega Nord, said:

“Hurrah for Switzerland’s democratic referendum. We’ll propose one in Italy, too.”

However, his fellow party member Roberto Cota – the governor of Piedmont – voiced concern over the future of cross-border workers from his region, claiming that:

“Respect is needed, because we’re talking about honest and regular workers. Together with [Roberto] Maroni [the governor of Lombardy, another senior Lega Nord member] we’ll request a meeting with [Italian Prime Minister Enrico] Letta on this issue as soon as possible.”

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague was quite restrained, commenting that he did not want to prejudge the results of the negotiations, adding that:

“We will be mindful of the position of 40,000 British nationals who work in Switzerland”.

Irish foreign minister Eamon Gilmore warned that “We are seeing signs of the rise of the far-right in Europe” while the Luxembourgian foreign minister Jean Asselborn has been the most outspoken, claiming that the vote has put the Swiss in “good company” with people such as Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French Front National.

There have also been some strong responses coming out of Brussels with EU Commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde-Hansen commenting that:

“The message is clear today: free movement of people is a sacred right for the EU… This will clearly have implications for the rest of the agreements [with Switzerland].”

EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding, never knowingly understated, argued that “the single market is not a Swiss cheese. You cannot have a single market with holes in it” which is a silly statement given that the Swiss trading relationship actually is a bit like a Swiss cheese, with patchy market access in services, for example.

The response from MEPs is also interesting as they might have a say in the negotiations (although this is a bit of a grey area). While EP President Martin Schulz was relatively restrained, other senior MEPs were quick to stick the boot in.

So a lot of posturing. These negotiations will be very, very interesting…

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