Prima i nostri! Ticino population tackles ruling of immigration themselves

by Dr iur Marianne Wüthrich

On 25 September 2016, the Ticino population clearly adopted the cantonal referendum “Prima i nostri” (first our own people) with 58.02 per cent yes votes. The counter ­proposal of the Gran Consiglio (Parliament) was also clearly rejected. So the voters give a clear signal to Berne: If the Federal Parliament does not implement the Mass Immigration initiative, then we just do it ourselves.

62,179 cross-border commuters worked in Ticino in June 2016, equivalent to almost one-third of the approximately 200,000 jobs1. The foreigners’ rate resident in the canton of Ticino is 27.6%, therefore higher than the Swiss average (24.6%, end of 2015). With its 350,000 inhabitants, the Italian-speaking southern canton faces huge Lombardy with 10 million inhabitants who speak the same language, but suffer from a much higher unemployment than the Ticino neighbours and understandably are attracted by the high Swiss wages too.
Knowing what will be ahead of them, the Ticino population have rejected the Bilateral I with the corresponding free movement of persons almost as the only canton in the year 2000 with 57% no. In February 2014 they said most clearly yes to the Mass Immigration initiative with 68.2%.

“Bottom up protection clause” instead of uniform threshold value prescribed from above

As the Federal Council draft for the regulation of immigration was published in spring 2016, the Ticino Government informed the media: Setting a threshold beyond which quotas were introduced, will not help the Ticino at all, so State Council President Norman Gobbi on 6 March 2016, because it does not take account of frontier workers. There are the frontier workers who contribute in Ticino to significantly higher unemployment, wage dumping and congestion on the roads.
As alternative to the Federal Council’s proposal the Ticinese Government therefore presented a “bottom up protection clause”, worked out by Michael Ambühl, former Secretary of State and Swiss chief negotiator on their behalf. Regional labour markets indicators such as unemployment rates, wage levels or cost of living should serve as criteria for restricting immigration. The situation in heavily affected regions should turn the balance for a restriction of immigration, not a number prescribed from above and valid for whole Switzerland. (cf. “Berner Zeitung” 7 March)
The fact that in the autumn session the National Council didn’t take this sensible proposal into consideration certainly contributed to the fact that the Ticino population said so clearly yes to the initiative “Prima i nostri” on 25 September.

A priority for nationals that deserves this name

The central point of the new Ticino regulation: The principle of the priority of nationals according to Article 121a of the Federal Constitution (control of immigration) is anchored in the Constitution of the Canton:
Article 14 paragraph 1: “the Canton ensures that […]” “b. on the labour market its inhabitants are preferred to foreigners, if they have same qualifications (implementation of the principle of the priority of national workers)”.
This means for the employers who are looking for an employee that they must first prove that no suitable workers are available in Ticino before they employ a cross-border worker or an immigrant from Italy.
If we compare the regulation established by the people of Ticino with the powerless “National priority light” which the majority of the National Council has approved on 21 September as first Council, we can well understand our compatriots from beyond the Gotthard. A job reporting obligation of the employer in case of excess of a hitherto unknown threshold value does not help the Ticino workers and job seekers. They need immediate remedy to the previously unrestricted influx of cross-border workers and immigrants which depresses the wages of the workforce and force up the unemployment and hence social assistance costs (see box).

Not feasible?

The concerns of the cantons are to be respected by the federal authorities
In the Italian media, loud howls of protest arose after the Ticino referendum. Thereby, in a people-friendly economy it would be actually clear that the companies first employ those job seekers who already live in the country.
In Switzerland, some say that the initiative is not feasible, because the canton shouldn’t penetrate into areas which are in the competence of the Federal Government or are regulated by treaties with foreign countries. In particular, it was unclear whether the amendment of the purpose article of the Cantonal Constitution associated with the initiative “Prima i nostri” was allowed:

“Article 4 purpose article
“Paragraph 1 The Canton [...] wakes that international treaties concluded by the Confederation and the Foreign Nationals Act thus affected are applied without violating the personal and social rights of the persons living on the cantonal territory and in full respect of the reciprocity between states.” [Translation Current Concerns]

What should be not allowed there? The new Ticino Constitution norm corresponds to the strong position of the cantons in the federalist political system: “The cantons are sovereign insofar as their sovereignty is not limited by the Federal Constitution; they exercise all rights which are not transferred to the Federal Government.” It says so in Article 3 of the Federal Constitution. It is almost the right and obligation of the cantonal authorities to protest and intervene actively, if federal authorities do not follow the Constitution! One could speak of an actual cantons’ right to resist.
After the cantonal referendum of the initiative “Prima i nostri” the Federal Assembly will decide whether it wants to ensure the changes of the Ticino Constitution (as not contradicting a federal law). (Article 51 paragraph 2 of the Federal Constitution) This won’t be a legal, but a political decision first and foremost. If the Parliament in Bern prefers to have cooperative cantons at its side, it won’t refuse ensuring Ticino. It would be wiser to consider the concerns and problems of the individual cantons and to include them into the federal decisions. This includes no doubt immigration and in particular the question of the priority of the residents so that the border cantons and particularly the Ticino aren’t left alone with their urgent concerns. Otherwise the authorities in Berne may not be surprised, if one or the other Canton takes its affairs into their own hands.     •

1     Federal Statistical Office (FSO), Employment and workweek, Cross-border Commuters

Higher unemployment and lower wages close to the border

“The latest wage data for 2014 again yield information that border workers in the Canton Ticino and the Jurassic Arc achieve lower wages on average than local workers with identical features: The wage difference is around 6%.” – “ For the border regions, it should be noted that, despite the difficult economic environment, cross-border employment continued to grow during the last year, with the exception of the canton of Ticino, where the number of cross-border workers remained at a high level.
Particularly in the Lake Geneva region, in Ticino, and in the Jurassic Arc, cross-border workers make up a high proportion of local employment; at the same time, the unemployment rate in these regions is clearly above the Swiss average.”

State Secretariat for Economic Affairs SECO Media release on the Free Movement of Persons from 5.7.2016; extract

(Translation Current Concerns)