Immigration to Switzerland – remote- or self-controlled?

The history of Switzerland’s traditionally generous immigration policy

by Dr rer. publ. Werner Wüthrich

On September 27, we will vote on four referenda at the federal level – on paternity leave, a hunting law (which makes it easier to shoot wolves), on the acquisition of fighter aircraft and on new child deductions in federal taxes. On the same day, there will also be a vote on a popular initiative that aims to create the constitutional basis for the resumption of our autonomous control of immigration (Limitation Initiative). Let us look at some of the related considerations:

How did the Swiss population deal with immigration in earlier times? – In the decades before the founding of the federal state in 1848, Switzerland was rather a poor country of emigration, and famine was still a frequent occurrence after failed harvests. Up to the 19th century, many of our young men still earned their money in the military service abroad. All over the world, we find the traces of emigrants mainly from mountain cantons like Glarus, Wallis, Graubünden or Ticino. The country was still many years behind the United Kingdom, France or even Germany, especially in railroad construction. But things changed.
   With the founding of the federal state, industrialisation got a boost. At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a large number of pioneering companies in Switzerland. The country profited from capable newcomers who founded companies, including pioneers such as Henri Nestlé and the Briton Charles Brown (BBC, now ABB). Switzerland had also become a tourist country.
   Before the First World War, the proportion of foreigners in the population was a high 14.7 % – much higher than in other European countries. Belgium ranked second in these statistics with 3 %. Swiss borders were largely open. Anyone could come, but they had to look after themselves. During the First World War and then in the interwar period, the number of foreigners fell again – especially during the economic crisis of the 1930s.

1960s: sharp increase
in immigration during the boom

By 1945, only about 5 % of the population were foreign. However, this figure rose markedly in the course of the boom of the postwar decades, reaching about 13 % in the early 1960s and 15 % in 1968. These statistics do not include the seasonal workers who worked here for a few months without their families joining them and then returned home (seasonal worker statute).
   Many problems of the boom remained unsolved: About 30 % of the workforce came from abroad. There were no more unemployed people. Those who lost their jobs found a new one within hours. As a result of the overheated economy, the whole infrastructure was massively swamped. School buildings were too small, the sewage system was inadequate, and modern waste incineration and sewage treatment plants were almost completely absent. Water and environmental pollution was so bad that it was impossible to swim in most lakes. The road network was by no means sufficient any longer, the highways were still under construction, housing construction was hopelessly behind, and rents and prices in general were rising. Economists no longer spoke of full employment but of overemployment.

Attempts to dampen the economy

During the 1960s and 1970s, Parliament repeatedly adopted emergency measures (which were immediately put into effect) to curb the economy. Each individual federal decree was voted on individually afterwards – a total of eleven times. One temporarily capped the number of employees in the individual companies (creation of additional jobs was prohibited), others provided for credit limits and construction stops for luxury single-family homes, prices were to be monitored, and much more. Such rigorous measures were not aimed specifically at foreigners, but were intended to cool down the overheated economy in general. The people voted aye every time (Rhinow 2011, p. 36; Linder 2010).

First initiatives to control immigration

Soon, a number of popular initiatives were launched that went down in history as so called “Überfremdungsinitiativen” (foreign infiltration initiatives). They demanded that the authorities should directly limit immigration. The Democratic Party of the Canton of Zurich successfully collected signatures for a federal popular initiative as early as 1965. It called for a restriction of admitted and short-term foreign residents to only one-tenth of the resident population. The number of foreign residents was to be reduced by 5 percent each year until the realisation of this percentage (Hofer 2012, no. 89; Linder 2010, p. 303).
   Let us look at a bit of party history: The Democratic Party of the Canton of Zurich had its roots in the FDP (Free Democrats) of this canton. It split off in 1941 and founded a party of its own. A reunion took place in 1971. In the same year the Grisons and Glarus Democrats, together with the BGB (Farmers’, Trade and Citizens’ Party), founded the Swiss People’s Party SVP, today the largest party in Switzerland.

Majority of the people rejects
foreign infiltration initiatives

The fate of the first so-called “Popular Initiative Against Foreign Infiltration” was unusual. The Federal Council and Parliament rejected it. The Federal Council appealed to the initiators to withdraw it as the authorities had taken a whole series of stabilisation measures for the economy. The number of employees in the companies were about to be capped and the total number of foreign workers limited. A referendum campaign would only heat up the mood, lead to unpleasant arguments and damage the reputation of Switzerland. Federal Councillor Schaffner (FDP) invited the initiative committee to a personal meeting – and was successful. The canton of Zurich Democrats withdrew their initiative in 1968 (Linder 2010, p. 303).
   The 1970 Schwarzenbach Initiative: The newly founded National Action Party (“National Action against foreign infiltration of our homeland and our people”) was against this withdrawal. One of its representatives, National Councillor James Schwarzenbach, therefore launched the second foreign infiltration initiative shortly afterwards and founded his own party – the Republicans. It demanded that resident foreigners should not exceed 10 % of the population. 17 cantons would have had to reduce their annual resident population by more than half. A withdrawal was not possible this time because the text did not contain a withdrawal clause. The initiative was rejected almost unanimously in parliament. A fierce and emotionally charged voting battle began. From today’s point of view, some people will think: 10 % – so what? – today we have almost 25 % – and Switzerland has not gone under. But back then conditions were quite different.
   For many politicians, the phenomena brought about by the economic boom were new and unfamiliar. They still had the images of the economic crisis of the 1930s with its high unemployment in their minds. After the war, the “Schwarzenbach Initiative” was to become an important vote. Almost 75 % of the voters went to the ballot box on 6 July 1970. 54 % rejected the initiative – despite the urgent problems existing on the economic front – and to the great relief of the Federal Council and the large majority in parliament who had fought for a nay. However, the aye vote was still high. Large cantons like Berne and Lucerne accepted the initiative. The mood remained tense, as the next popular initiative on immigration had already been submitted. This called for the number of foreign residents to be reduced to 12.5 % of the Swiss resident population within 10 years. Yet another popular initiative called for a tightening of naturalisation practices (Linder 2010, p. 303, 331, 355).

End of the boom –
Switzerland remains a popular immigration country

When the economic boom came to an end in the 1970s, many jobs were cut again. A large part of the urgently necessary tasks had, however, been undertaken. Many sewage treatment and waste incineration plants had been built. It was again possible to swim in the lakes. The construction industry had even built too many new apartments, so that rents fell. In 1977, the two popular initiatives mentioned above were brought to the vote, both on the same day. But only 45 % of the eligible voters went to the ballot box. The result was clear: a large majority of voters and all cantons rejected both initiatives. Switzerland had come a long way toward adapting itself to becoming a popular immigration country, and it had also succeeded in integrating many of the 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 and other bold infrastructure constructions, and later also the many hydroelectric power stations throughout the country and the numerous dams in the mountains.

1980s – further popular initiatives

As a reaction to the so-called foreign infiltration initiatives, the catholic workers’ and employees’ movement had launched the “Mitenand-Initiative” (Together-Initiative) in 1977 – with the goal of bringing about a new “humane” policy on foreigners. Social security and family reunification were to be better regulated and work permits for one season only (seasonal worker statute) were to be abolished. Parliament and the Federal Council recommended rejection and, as a counter-proposal, referred to the ongoing revision of the Federal Law on the Settlement and Residence of Foreigners (Bundesgesetz über die Niederlassung und den Aufenthalt von Ausländern) (ANAG). This new law would significantly improve the legal situation of foreigners. The people and all the states followed the authorities and clearly rejected the 1981 popular initiative with more than 85 % (Linder 2010, p. 400).
   In the 1980s, the proportion of the foreign resident population continued to increase. As a result, the National Action again launched a popular initiative. For 15 years, the number of immigrants should not exceed two-thirds of that of emigrants per year - as long as Switzerland’s resident population was over 6.2 million (today 8.4 million). In 1988, again more than 70 % of voters and all cantons said nay to this numerical restriction (Linder 2007, p. 460).

1990s: influx as a result of the Yugoslav wars,
and FDP “18% Initiative”

In the 1990s, the proportion of foreigners in the population rose again. Countries of origin were primarily Yugoslavia and, more recently, Germany. In 1991 it was 17.1 %, in 1994 18.6 %, and once again a popular initiative was submitted. The so-called 18-percent Initiative came from the ranks of the FDP: National Councillor Philipp Müller (the later party president of the Swiss FDP) demanded that the proportion of foreign residents should not exceed 18 % of the total population. With his popular initiative, Müller followed the so-called democratic line within the FDP, ie the group wedded to far-reaching citizens’rights and direct democracy. Parliament and the Federal Council rejected the initiative. But in contrast to earlier years, the authorities reacted more calmly. To be sure, there were problems, but many of those existing in the sixties and seventies had been solved or defused. Also, the integration of the many immigrants from southern states had gone better than many people would have thought – so 64 % of voters and all cantons voted nay this time as well (Linder 2010, pp. 460, 593).

After 2000:
Free movement of persons with the EU

On 6 December 1992, the people rejected accession to the EEA with 50.3 % of the votes, after the Federal Council had submitted the application for membership. The ratio of votes was even clearer with the cantons: 18 of 26 (full and half) cantons voted against, only eight for membership. After that, the Federal Council continued to hold on to its goal of accession until 2005. In 2000, a vote was taken on the Bilaterals I. These included the free movement of persons, which is at the core of the political EU, as a central element. Since its foundation in 1957, the EU has pursued the goal of forming an ever closer union with porous borders and a “European” population – similar to that in the USA. This concept was controversial from the start. Together with Great Britain and other countries, Switzerland founded the EFTA (European Free Trade Association) as a counter-model in 1960. This largely preserves the political sovereignty of its members and strives in this manner for deeper economic cooperation (Wüthrich 2020, pp. 293-318) (Great Britain only joined the EU or the then EC in 1974 and recently left again).
   In 2000 there was a risk that the Swiss people would reject the whole package of seven treaties because of the free movement of persons and the political objectives associated with this. For this reason, the Federal Council had been beating the big drum hard, claiming that no more than a net number of 8,000 to 10,000 people would immigrate per year. Many of the older generation will have thought at the time: no problem, we have already experienced much more difficult situations. So the sovereign agreed. But reality proved to be different from the claim.

A state political problem needing to be solved
(popular initiatives 2002, 2014 and 2020)

There were years with a net immigration of towards 90,000 a year – as many as once in the 1960s boom – about one million within 13 years. – In 2002, 81 % of the electorate and all the cantons voted against the popular initiative “Yes to Europe”, which called for the opening of accession negotiations. In 2014 the people approved the mass immigration initiative, which called for more moderate immigration. In contrast to earlier initiatives, it did not demand a reduction in the number of foreigners from an already high 25 %. Rather, it simply wanted to restore the right of Switzerland as a sovereign country to manage immigration independently, as it had done repeatedly for decades. Under pressure from Brussels, parliament and the Federal Council refused to actually implement this popular verdict. In the proven “Swiss model”, political powers are separated and power is shared. The people rank at the top. Today, parts of the power are shifted away from the people to the authorities (so that there is talk of a controlled democracy). But the authorities sometimes no longer adhere to the constitution, and this fact has already emerged as a problem of state policy in recent years (for example, in individual decisions of the Federal Supreme Court). It is still unresolved today and is also demonstrated by the appearance of Federal Councillors showing a lack of the appropriate restraint in referendum campaigns. If no countermeasures are taken, this problem will increase with the political integration provided for by the planned framework agreement with the EU. In “Brussels” the people do not participate in any power at all – apart from the elections to the EU Parliament (which has only very few competences). So this is a question of the sort that essentially arises in Switzerland.
   The new popular initiative now on the table expressly demands that the free movement of persons with the EU be terminated, if there is no other way. It also does not demand that the high number of foreigners be reduced, but rather that Switzerland, as a sovereign country, should merely regain the right to independently shape its policy in this central area of society – as it has done many times before – with the participation of the people.

Switzerland is sticking to its traditionally generous immigration policy
– even in difficult time

Over the last fifty years – since 1970 – a large number of referendums have been held on immigration and related issues. Sometimes passions were running high. Worth mentioning here are referenda on measures to alleviate the housing shortage, to improve tenant protection, to improve the integration of immigrants, to manage limited space carefully, to protect the environment, and many more.
   As a result of numerous votes, the traditionally generous immigration policy was confirmed and a political culture was reinforced in which citizens feel they are taken seriously; they have a voice and can express themselves, even in difficult times, and they can thus contribute to finding solutions (Wüthrich 2020, pp. 335-345). The author of this article thinks this is one of the main reasons for the stability, social peace, prosperity as well as the active and lively policies we have today. – Do we really want to delegate decision-making authority to Brussels to an even greater extent – with consequences that are tantamount to a paradigm shift and not at all foreseeable?

Direct democracy as glue that holds it all together

With its four language regions and cultures, Switzerland is a multifaceted country: the proportion of foreigners in this country is now at a record 25 %. 300,000 cross-border commuters have found a job here. Also today, more than 700,000 Swiss people live abroad. Swiss companies have created around three million jobs abroad. There is a lot of foreign capital invested in Switzerland. The country is therefore more cosmopolitan and liberal than many other countries and remains a popular immigration country. The popular initiatives that are repeatedly brought forward to control immigration and its consequences in one or the other way are rather a reaction to this openness and sometimes also a pressure valve for conflicts and issues that parliament and the Federal Council do not tackle – in no way are they a sign of isolation or even of xenophobia, as is sometimes claimed. Rather, they are even important for cohesion.

Open for future challenges

Switzerland’s population has doubled since the Second World War and will continue to grow. There is already talk of the “Switzerland of 10 million”. I think it would be gross negligence to renounce the sovereignty and the direct participation of the people in such a central area of society, especially after the positive experiences of the last fifty years. Moreover, the eventful history of the last decades has shown that the world is forever changing. Even today: as a result of the current crises nobody knows what is still to come. The EU is changing. Great Britain has left and is reshaping its relationship with the EU – without the free movement of persons. The EU has decided on taking the first steps towards a fiscal and debt union … The people’s “aye” to the mass immigration initiative in 2014 was a pointer in the direction of a policy that leaves scope to react flexibly to the coming challenges, including new ones – and to do so in the familiar and proven direct democratic manner that is part of Switzerland’s political culture and at the core of its successful model.

Will an “aye” to the initiative endanger bilateral relations?

After a popular “aye” vote, the Federal Council has one year to renegotiate immigration – excluding freedom of movement. If Brussels does not respond, the Federal Council will have to terminate the agreement on the free movement of persons. On the basis of the guillotine clause this would also invalidate the other agreements of the Bilaterals I. However, the chances for solutions are good, even if today’s statements by individual commissioners from Brussels sometimes sound different. Both sides are interested. The EU will stick to the transit agreement in any case, because it considers the North-South link for trucks (and also for electricity) as of strategic importance under current conditions. The Swiss contribution to the Cohesion Fund is part of an amicable solution.

Broad agreement

The basis for Switzerland’s economic relations with the EU is the 1972 free trade agreement between the EFTA countries and the then EC, which was approved by all cantons and 72.5 % of voters. Since then, the agreement has been supplemented with and refined by over a hundred supplementary treaties. These treaties can be developed further. These agreements are beneficial to both sides and do not require any political involvement or connection, so that there is broad agreement.
   Should we deviate from this path even more than we have already done, just to gain one or two economic advantages? – Switzerland imports more from EU countries than it exports there. As its third most important trading partner, it is a good and reliable business partner that is not to be offended by a state policy issue that goes beyond purely economic relations and that is basically regulated independently by each sovereign country.


Jakob Kellenberger negotiated the Bilaterals I with the EU on the free movement of persons a good 20 years ago. Afterwards he was president of the International Committee of the Red Cross ICRC. In 2014 he published the book “Wo liegt die Schweiz? Gedanken zum Verhältnis Schweiz – EU” (Where is Switzerland? Reflexions on the relationship between Switzerland and the EU”). In it he also reflects on the political and economic development in the years following “his” treaty and comes to the following conclusion:
   “The return to the free trade concept of 1972 may indeed be the obvious way forward for a country that is struggling with the conditions for a successful post-92 bilateralism and that has no political ambitions that could only be realised by joining the EU.” (Kellenberger 2014, p. 186)    •


Hofer, Bruno. Volksinitiativen der Schweiz – laufend aktualisiert. Dokumentation aller lancierten Volksinitiativen auf Bundesebene von 1891 bis heute (Popular initiatives in Switzerland – constantly updated. Documentation of all popular initiatives launched at federal level from 1891 to the present day), Dietikon 2013
Kellenberger, Jakob. Wo liegt die Schweiz? Gedanken zum Verhältnis Schweiz – EU (Where is Switzerland? Reflexions on the relationship between Switzerland and the EU), Zurich 2014
Linder, Wolf; Bolliger, Christian; Rielle, Yvan. Handbuch der eidgenössischen Volksabstimmungen 1848–2007 (Handbook of Federal Referenda 1848-2007), Bern 2010
Rhinow, R.; Schmid, G.; Biaggini, G.; Uhlmann, F. Öffentliches Wirtschaftsrecht (Public Commercial Law), Basel 2011
Wüthrich, Werner. Wirtschaft und direkte Demokratie in der Schweiz (Economy and direct democracy in Switzerland), Zurich 2020

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