At the turn of the twentieth century, to its lasting shame, the United States had strict immigration quotas to separate “undesirables” from other, more welcome arrivals. 100 years later, it appears that Switzerland is picking up the tradition, as the nation’s voters just said “yes” to a government plan to implement quotas for immigration to the famous land-locked European country. Switzerland may pride itself on being wealthy, neutral and staid, but its citizens may have just set off a furor in an already tense political landscape in Europe, where immigration policy is a hot subject from Italy to Denmark and beyond.
The story starts with the Swiss People’s Party, which is a nationalist, right-wing organization similar to those that are creeping up across Europe. Extremist politics are beginning to take center stage in several European nations, with some nationalists even starting to enjoy considerable political power, an ominous sign on a continent struggling to adjust to a changing political, social and economic world. If the rise of right-wing extremism continues unchecked, it will lead to more moves such as this one.
Voters claim that Switzerland is getting “crowded,” a parroting of political rhetoric from right-wing groups, and argue that Switzerland is for the Swiss. But is it? Like other European countries, Switzerland benefits immensely from skilled immigrants as well as migrant laborers, and without their contributions to society, it might not function as well — or as profitably — as it does at the moment.
Under the proposal, Switzerland will limit the number of foreign people who will be allowed to live and work in Switzerland. This could backfire on the nation, as one of the reasons it thrives as an economic powerhouse is because of the considerable political and economic exchange it has with other countries. Some companies, especially banks and other financial institutions, may choose (or be forced) to relocate from Switzerland to nations where the host government will be more hospitable to their employees from around the world.
Furthermore, the vote sends a clear message to migrant workers, asylum seekers and people attempting to build better lives for themselves as they escape from war-torn, drought-ravaged, crowded regions of the world. As Europe clamps down on its borders and implements draconian immigration policies that put migrants at risk, Switzerland, too, is closing its borders and making it clear that it doesn’t want to be involved in the plight of people who need or want to relocate. Anti-immigration sentiments are already high in the rest of Europe, and it’s clear that they are in Switzerland as well — could the new regulations pave the way towards hate crimes and unequal treatment of foreign residents by indicating that immigrants are somehow lesser?
The nation’s relationship with the European Union could also be imperiled, as a number of treaties and agreements hinge on freedom of movement. If Switzerland goes through with this — and the even more radical proposal set to hit the polls next year to limit migration even further — it could indeed become an island in the middle of Europe, and it might find that the experience isn’t as enjoyable as residents expected it to be.
Photo credit: Janet McKnight.