Heike Scholten is a social scientist and managing director of Sensor Advice. Here she writes about the SVP's limitation initiative, the aim of which is to end the free movement of people between Switzerland and the EU – and what Swiss citizens think of it.
A whisper goes through Switzerland. The electoral initiative of the SVP will be voted in eleven weeks, which wants nothing less than to give up the free movement of people with the European Union. But nobody really seems to care. Sure, this year the responsible Federal Councilor launched the voting campaign at a record-breaking rate early. The public debate, on the other hand, has not yet really got going, and the campaigns are starting to slow. The mood in the country is reminiscent of 2014, when the SVP voted on the Mass Immigration Initiative (MEI) and the polls long predicted that the referendum would be rejected. It turned out differently.
So six years later the question arises: is Switzerland threatened by a new European political fiasco on May 17?
We wanted that with our study Talk about Switzerland and Europe find out and listened carefully. In all parts of the country, we conducted intensive group discussions on European politics with citizens from a wide variety of social classes and with a wide variety of political backgrounds. What concerns people when they think of Switzerland and Europe? Which points are important to you – and why? What is your position on the limitation initiative and on the institutional framework agreement with the EU? And above all, what arguments do they need when they represent their positions and substantiate their opinions?
We recorded the conversations with 140 people and analyzed them anonymously. As qualitative researching social scientists, we did not want to use this to calculate a majority majority for or against the SVP initiative or the framework agreement, but to understand the discourse.
Nevertheless, when we heard it for the first time, it quickly became clear to us that the SVP initiative is having a hard time, it will probably fail. Alone, that was how it sounded in 2014 before the MEI vote, and it was of no use. Because there is this big but that plagues many voters: The constant fear of losing control of your own country.
The Swiss actually want a good partnership with Europe. The media dominating narrative of "Europe in crisis" does little to change that. Even if Europe has become "an expensive and lame paper tiger" for some of them, it is clear to many: Those who live so close to each other are dependent on each other. "I see the EU like my neighbor, who lives next to me. I don't have a noise with him, I get along well with him," said an older man. And this is how it sounds from Eastern to Central and Western Switzerland. The view of Europe is neither naively colored nor romanticized.
The bilaterals are particularly popular. The contracts have been regulating the legal relationship with the countries of the European Union for twenty years. They apply to all 28 Member States. Switzerland was able to negotiate a special route. We often heard that many in the EU would envy the country. The bilaterals should therefore not be put at risk. "We cut ourselves (otherwise) into our own flesh," said a woman. The contracts are described across the country as "the best solution" so that Switzerland can remain politically independent and still benefit from the European single market and conclude free trade agreements with other countries worldwide. With the bilaterals, Switzerland has "the five and the Weggli," a man in central Switzerland told us.
Citizens know that the EU is the most important trading partner for the Swiss economy. "The economic interdependency is so great, both in terms of finance, export and import," said a younger woman. "You can't avoid it at all." A gentleman in the group warned: "We can not just swerve and say that we are a little alone now. That is not good." The shortage of skilled workers also obviously speaks for stable and regulated relationships with neighbors. Health care, the construction industry and gastronomy were mentioned particularly often. The free movement of people was "very important", we heard again and again. It was agreed that Switzerland had to be able to bring workers from abroad without a lot of red tape. After all, a Swiss baker cannot replace the doctor from Germany in the operating room. "The Swiss economy would collapse if we lost only half of the foreigners."
For most of our interlocutors, the positive effects of individual bilateral agreements speak in favor of "going on as before" in European politics: the Schengen Treaty estimates that "traveling around without any controls at the border". The research agreement enables young people to study abroad. And finally, the free movement of people "here in Switzerland too" enables us to determine our own center of life ourselves, somewhere in the European Union.
So far so good. And not quite. As open borders are seen as an opportunity for Switzerland, this is where the sore point lies. Free movement of persons is the "yes, but" agreement in the bilateral package. It is not questioned as such, but when the open market intensifies competition on the labor market, the pressure on wages increases or jobs are outsourced abroad and the infrastructure reaches its limits. "In general, immigration poses major problems for us." It sounded like this or similar in our conversations – particularly clearly in Ticino.