Traditionally and generous Switzerland’s immigration policy – determined by the people

Traditionally and generous Switzerland’s immigration policy – determined by the people

Historical background

by Dr rer. publ. Werner Wüthrich

The UN migration pact, the free movement of persons and the institutional framework agreement with the EU (which aims to further expand the free movement of persons) are high on the political agenda in Switzerland. The question of immigration is central to all these issues. – A brief historical review is worthwhile here. All so-called “Überfremdungsinitiativen” (popular initiatives against foreignisation) submitted since the 1960s have so far been rejected.

In the decades before the founding of the federal state in 1848, Switzerland was rather a poor emigration country, where poor harvests often still led to famines. Many of the young men had earned their living abroad as soldiers until the 19th century. We find traces of emigrants from mountain cantons such as Glarus, Valais or Grisons all over the world. The actual industrialisation had only just begun in 1848. The country was still many years behind Great Britain, France and Germany, especially in railway construction. But that changed. Already at the beginning of the 20th century, Switzerland was a typical country of immigration and tourism and benefited in many ways from the skilled newcomers who founded companies. These included pioneers such as Henri Nestlé and the British Charles Brown (BBC).
Before the First World War, the proportion of foreigners in the population was a high 14.7 per cent – much higher than in other European countries. Belgium ranked second in these statistics with 3 per cent. The borders were largely open. Everyone could come, but had to look for himself.
In the interwar period, the number of foreigners fell again – especially in the 1930s (economic crisis). In 1945, only around five per cent of the population were foreigners. However, this figure rose sharply during the boom of the post-war decades, reaching around 13 per cent at the beginning of the 1960s and 15 per cent in 1968. These statistics do not include seasonal workers that only worked for a few months and then returned home (seasonal workers’ statute).

1960s: strong increase in immigration during the boom – attempts to contain it

In the course of the 1960s, the parliament repeatedly adopted measures to limit immigration by initially fixing a ceiling of the number of staff in the individual companies. These and other measures were not aimed specifically at foreigners, but were intended to cool the heated economy in general and prevent entrepreneurs from making further investments and creating more jobs. There were no more unemployed. Those who lost their jobs found a new one within hours. Soon, however, a number of initiatives came from the population, which went down in history as “Überfremdungsinitiativen” (popular initiative against foreignisation) and demanded that the authorities directly limit immigration and reduce the total number of foreigners.
The Democratic Party of the Canton of Zurich successfully launched a federal popular initiative in 1965. It demanded that foreign permanent residents and temporary residents be limited to one tenth of the resident population. Until this population is reached, it should be reduced by 5 per cent each year (Hofer 2012, No. 89; Linder 2010, p. 303). The Federal Council and parliament rejected the initiative.
The fate of the first “Überfremdungsinitiative” was unusual. The Federal Council and individual parliamentarians appealed to the initiators to withdraw their initiative. The Federal Council had taken a whole package of stabilisation measures, fixing a ceiling of the number of employees in the companies and also limited the total number of foreign workers. A referendum would only fuel the mood, lead to unpleasant disputes, create tension in the companies and cause great damage to Switzerland’s reputation. Federal Councillor Schaffner (FDP, liberal party) invited the initiative committee to a personal meeting – and was successful. The initiative was withdrawn in 1968 (Linder 2010, p. 303).

1970s: the “Schwarzenbach-Initiative” and other popular initiatives against foreignisation are refused

The “Nationale Aktion gegen Überfremdung von Volk und Heimat” (National Action against foreignisation) was against this retreat. One of its representatives, National Councillor James Schwarzenbach, therefore launched the second “Überfremdungsinitiative” a little later and founded his own party – the Republicans. It demanded a fixed ceiling of the number of foreigners, which could not exceed 10 per cent of the population. 17 cantons would have had to reduce their residents with annual permits by more than half. A withdrawal was not possible this time because the initiators had deliberately not included a withdrawal clause in the text. In parliament, the initiative was almost unanimously rejected. A fierce and emotionally charged voting battle began. From today’s point of view, some will think: What is a mere 10 per cent, today we have almost 25 per cent – and Switzerland has not perished. But the conditions were quite different back then. The unresolved problems of the boom were great: About 30 per cent of the workforce came from abroad. However, the entire infrastructure was massively overburdened not only by immigration, but above all by the heated economy: The school buildings were too small, the canalisation inadequate, modern refuse incinerator and wastewater treatment plants were almost completely lacking. Water and environmental pollution was alarming. It was no longer allowed to bathe in the lakes of Lugano and Zurich. The road network was no longer sufficient, the motorways were still under construction, residential construction was hopelessly in arrears and rents and prices in general were rising. The unemployment rate was 0.0 per cent and economists no longer spoke of full employment but of overemployment. Wages were appropriate, but the constant overtime at the workplace was annoying. An atmosphere arose that was not harmless.
Politicians had reacted late. Some politicians still had in mind the images of the economic crisis of the 1930s – such as the oppressive unemployment, which was fought with numerous emergency measures. They were completely unaccustomed to the phenomena of the boom. Emergency law existed again – but this time quite differently. In 1949, emergency law was democratised on the basis of a popular initiative (Linder 2010, p. 217). In the 1960s and 1970s, the people voted eleven times individually on emergency laws, i.e. urgent federal decrees, which all had the aim of dampening the economy and solving or alleviating the pressing problems – particularly in the monetary area. The sovereign has always said yes and strengthened the backs of the government and parliament (Rhinow, R.; Schmid, G.; Biaggini, G.; Uhlmann, F. 2011, p. 36 f.).
The “Schwarzenbach-Initiative” was to become one of the most important post-war votes: Almost 75 per cent of those eligible to vote went to the polls on 6 July 1970 – a figure that had not been reached since 1947, when the revised economic articles and the AHV (old-age pension) were put to the vote. 54 per cent rejected the initiative – despite the pressing problems on the economic front – and to the great relief of the Federal Council and the majority in parliament who had fought for a no. But the yes vote was high. Large cantons such as Berne and Lucerne had also accepted the initiative. The atmosphere was tense and remained so because the next popular initiative on immigration had already been submitted before 6 July 1970. This primarily demanded that the population of foreign residents be reduced to 12.5 per cent of the Swiss population within 10 years. Another popular initiative called for a tightening of naturalisation practice (Linder 2010, pp. 303, 331, 355).
In 1977, both popular initiatives were voted on simultaneously. However, the conditions were quite different this time: A large part of the homework had been done. It was possible to swim again in the lakes of Zurich and Lugano. The construction industry had even built far too many new flats, so that finding a flat was no longer a problem and rents fell again. The economic upswing that had lasted since the Second World War came to an end in 1975, and many jobs were cut again in the ensuing recession. – The referendum on immigration in 1977 did not cause much of a stir. Only 45 per cent of those eligible to vote went to the ballot box – this time also female voters. (In 1971 the Swiss men introduced the women’s right to vote.) The result was clear: A large majority and all the cantons rejected both initiatives. Switzerland had adjusted itself somewhat to being a popular immigration country, and it had also succeeded in integrating many immigrants well – at that time mainly from countries such as Italy, Spain and Portugal. Modern Switzerland could not have been built without the skilled craftsmen from the South. They had already made a major contribution in the 19th century, for example in the construction of the Gotthard tunnel, other bold infrastructure projects and later also the many hydroelectric power stations and dams in the mountains.

1980s – more popular initiatives

As reaction to the so called “Überfremdungsinitiativen” (popular initiatives against foreignisation) the “Katholische Arbeiter- und Angestelltenbewegung” (catholic worker- and  staffers movement) 1977 had launched the “Mitenand-Initiative” (Together-initiative) – with the aim to bring about a new, “human” national policy on immigration. Social security and family reunification should be regulated in a better way and the statute for seasonal workers (work permit only for one season) should be abolished. The Federal Council recommended to the ongoing revision of the Swiss Federal Law on the Temporary and Permanent Residence of Foreign Nationals (ANAG) as indirect counter-proposal. This new law would be more appropriate and would substantially improve the legal situation of foreigners. The people followed 1981 the Federal Council and his representatives in parliament and refused the popular initiative clearly with more than 85 per cent (Linder 2010, p. 400).
In the 1980s the economic situation improved again and the foreign residential population increased again proportionally. Consequently the Nationale Aktion again launched a popular initiative which wanted to lower the rate of foreign nationals. The number of immigrants allowed should be maximum two thirds of the emigrants during 15 years – as long as the population transcended 6.2 million (today 8.4 million). – 1988 another time more than 70 per cent of the voters and all cantons said no to numerical limits. (Linder, 2010, p. 460).

1990s: inflow as consequence of the Yugoslav wars

The per centage of foreigners in the population still increased in the 90s. Countries of origin were mainly Yugoslavia and in recent times Germany. 1991 it added up to 17,1 per cent, 1994 to 18.6 per cent and anew a popular initiative was launched. The so called 18-per cent-initiative surprisingly came from within the ranks of the Swiss Free Democratic Party (FDP): member of the National Council Philipp Müller (later president of the FDP Switzerland) demanded that the per centage of the foreign population may come to maximum 18 per cent of the entire population. Müller followed here the democratic line within the FDP which has a long tradition (see box). Federal Council and parliament refused the initiative – but in comparison to former times much more relaxed. There were problems with integration, indeed, but many of the problems of the sixties were solved or defused. Also the integration of the many southern Europeans had proceeded faster than many thought – 64 per cent of the voters and all cantons voted with no this time, too (Linder, 2010, p. 460, 593).

After 2000: Free movement of persons with the EU

After 2000 the situation was different again: 1999 the people had agreed to the Bilateral treaties I with the EU with a relatively narrow majority. Thereto belonged the free movement of persons. With this something new was added: the Free movement of persons belongs to the core of EU Policy, which since the foundation of the European Economic Community (EEC) 1957 pursues the political goal to build a supranational union getting closer and closer with open borders and a population gradually mixing up. There was the risk that the Swiss people would reject the whole package because of the free movement of persons. Therefore the Federal Council had beaten the big drum and argued that not more than 8,000 to 10,000 persons per year would immigrate. This is no problem, many might have thought, we have seen quite different things before. – But this was not reality. Times came with an immigration of more than 100,000 per year – as many as during the times of booming economy of the sixties.
2014 the people agreed to the “Stop Mass immigration popular initiative”. In contrast to earlier popular initiatives it didn’t demand to reduce the already very high per centage of 25 per cent of foreigners. It solely wanted to restore the right of Switzerland to decide for itself about immigration – as it did since decades repeatedly. But the authorities (Federal Council and Parliament) hesitated and at last refused under the pressure of Brussels to implement the verdict of the people. Now we have a veritable national policy problem. – Another popular initiative which definitively demands to terminate the free movement of persons with the EU is already submitted. (The high amount of immigration probably is the main reason of the Brexit in Great Britain, too.)
Today the UN migration pact is on the table which wants to make political pressure to regulate the matters of immigration internationally and top down. It contradicts as well to the time-proven tradition of Switzerland to settle its affairs by its own and in its own way. Switzerland has a lot of experience and success with its politics directly supported by the population – even in complex issues like immigration which happened altogether generously and in dignity. The interplay between population and authorities ordinarily works even in delicate issues and contributes substantially to the political stability of the country. The free movement of persons demanded by Brussels and its further development, the political pressure of a UN migration act and the institutional framework agreement which wants to incorporate Switzerland even more into the EU, however, are not useful and only can cause trouble.
Today 700,000 Swiss people live abroad. Swiss enterprises have created about three million jobs abroad. The inland per centage of foreigners amounts to a record high of 25 per cent. With this Switzerland is more cosmopolitan and liberal than many other countries and still a popular country of immigration. The repeatedly launched popular initiatives which intend to regulate immigration in one or the other way are more a reaction to this openness and sometimes an overpressure valve for conflicts and issues which parliament doesn’t address – but under no circumstances a sign of isolation or even of xenophobia which sometimes is suggested.    •

Hofer, Bruno. Volksinitiativen der Schweiz – laufend aktualisiert. Dokumentation aller lancierten Volksinitiativen auf Bundesebene von 1891 bis heute. Dietikon 2013
Linder, Wolf; Bolliger, Christian; Rielle, Yvan. Handbuch der eidgenössischen Volksabstimmungen1848–2007. Berne 2010
Rhinow, R; Schmid, G; Biaggini, G; Uhlmann F. Öffentliches Wirtschaftsrecht. Basel 2011

A short history of parties

ww. The Democratic Party of the Canton of Zurich, which launched the first of the so-called “Überfremdungsinitiativen” (popular initiatives against foreignisation), can boast of a proud history. It arose out of the broadly based and powerful democratic movement of the 1860s that opposed the liberal “Escher system” and advocated people’s rights. (Alfred ­Escher was an outstanding business leader, founder of the Schweizerische Kreditanstalt (now Credit Suisse) and the Nordostbahn (Northeastern-Railway). As a liberal politician, he dominated the Canton of Zurich almost at discretion and defended its purely representative democracy. His statue now stands in front of Zurich’s central station.) The year 1867, in which popular rallies demanded a new constitution ensuring direct-democratic people’s rights, were held in Winterthur, Bülach, Zurich and Uster, is commonly seen as the founding year of the Democratic Party. Democratic parties, calling for people’s rights, also arose in other cantons. In the Canton of Zurich the editors of the Winterthur gazette “Landbote” were the Democratic Party’s intellectual vanguard. In 1869 the party won the vote on the new constitution by a majority of 65 per cent and subsequently also the elections. The new constitution would last for 135 years – until it was revised in 2004. It guaranteed both the obligatory legislative and constitutional referendums (including the finance and taxation referendums) and the constitutional and legislative initiatives. Moreover, it ensured communal autonomy in a broad sense and provided for innovative social policy measures and improvements in the protection of labour, the establishment of a cantonal bank and the promotion of cooperatives – a veritable democratic revolution which took place without the firing of a single shot! This constitution would become the basis for hundreds of popular votes in the Canton of Zurich in the decades that followed. The outcome is impressive. Zurich (and Switzerland at large) has become one of the most attractive locations worldwide. Not street protests and riots brought the “Escher system” down, but peacefully held popular rallies, the collecting of signatures, the election of a constitutional convention and finally a popular vote on the new constitution. (Today’s “motley revolutionaries” could learn a great deal from this.) In other cantons and nationwide the Democrats likewise made an important contribution to the establishment of today’s popular rights. When the Swiss Liberal Democratic Party (FDP) was founded in 1894, Liberals and Democrats joined together (which is why they called themselves “Freisinnig-Demokraten”). In the Canton of Zurich the Democrats to some extent maintained their independence within the FDP and pursued their own agenda. In 1941 they seceded again and formed a party of their own, which in 1965 submitted the first national popular initiative against foreignisation. The party failed to reach its former strength, however, and in 1971 rejoined the FDP. In the same year, the Grison and Glarus Democrats combined with the “Bauern-, Gewerbe- und Bürgerpartei – BGB (Swiss Farmers, Tradesmen and Citizens Party) to form the “Schweizerische Volkspartei SVP (Swiss people´s Party) – now the largest party in Switzerland –, in whose programme the people’s rights are still of central importance.

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