A heated debate is currently taking place in Britain about an expected influx of
workers from new European Union member states Bulgaria and Romania. Could an
upcoming Swiss vote on immigration caps have any bearing on the issue?
|The controversy over immigrants in Britain has often focused on eastern European building workers (Thomas Kern / swissinfo.ch)
In both Switzerland and Britain there is considerable scepticism towards the EU
among parts of the population, and the free movement of people which it promotes
looms large in public debate in both countries. As of January 1 Romanians and
Bulgarians have had free access to Europe’s single labour market.
For its part, Switzerland is less than two weeks away from a nationwide vote on
re-introducing immigration quotas put forward by the rightwing Swiss People’s
But anyone who thinks the respective political debates are being followed
closely in the other country is quite wrong.
Iain Begg, professorial research fellow at the European Institute, London School
of Economics and Political Science, says only the specialist business press has
so far reported on the controversy in Switzerland.
“It is a footnote. I don’t see it as having a big influence on the debate in
Britain,” he says. “It is not an issue that is coming into the headlines.”
Nonetheless the Swiss vote on February 9 could enter the British debate
“It would need somebody to seize on it and it is possible that one of the more
populist politicians of the UK Independence Party [UKIP] could do that,” Begg
But should the initiative to restrict immigration be successful in Switzerland,
none of the more mainstream parties is likely to try to exploit it, he points
The British Conservative Party, the main ruling party, sees its own electoral
base undermined by the UKIP, and the latter might have a problem with the
credibility of its leader, Nigel Farage. He recently disowned the policy of the
nationalist protest movement.
However, certain parallels in the political debates in Switzerland and in
Britain over immigration are not hard to spot.
Supporters of a more restrictive policy in both countries warn of a flood of
foreigners putting social services and housing under strain and threatening to
take away jobs from the indigenous resident population.
But according to Begg, the overwhelming majority of immigrants go to Britain to
work, and as taxpayers they contribute to the wellbeing of the country.
Certain sectors of the British economy even rely on immigrants, in particular
farmers for the fruit harvest, health care services and also the financial
Opponents of the immigration restrictions in both countries cite studies which
show that immigrants make a positive contribution to the societies into which
Begg mentions the influx of Polish building workers to Britain over the past
decade: Initially it was welcomed, but with the onset of the economic downturn
anti-immigrant sentiment has grown.
“Some of the rhetoric coming from the UK Independence Party has suggested that
people come here and take jobs rather than create new wealth. Because the UKIP
threatens the more mainstream Conservatives they have hardened their stance on
immigration as well,” he says.
Begg does not deny that local tensions over immigration exist in several regions
in Britain, but he believes they are played up into a national debate by the
“I think it would be fair to say that some of the newspapers in Britain are not
quite as sober as the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and they like to pick up scare
Europe: Britain and SwitzerlandBritain joined the EU in 1973, while
Switzerland is not a member but has concluded more than 120
bilateral accords with the 28-member bloc.
Both countries are part of the single European market which includes
a key accord allowing workers access to the labour market in the
union as a whole.
Switzerland is holding a nationwide vote next month on the
re-introduction of immigration quotas. It is the first of at least
three public ballots in the next few years over restrictions of the
free movement of people.
A broader debate in Britain over immigration was launched following
the expansion of the EU in 2004.
The British government has made it harder for immigrants from new EU
member states to access certain benefits. It has also promised to
organise a referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU if the
Conservatives win a majority at the next general election.
In what seems to be a striking similarity, both the British and the Swiss
governments are planning to introduce restrictions on the benefits immigrants
can claim, or have already done so.
Earlier this month the Swiss cabinet pledged to crack down on welfare abuses and
tackle the shortage of affordable housing.
The British government of David Cameron recently made it more difficult for new
immigrants to access unemployment benefits and the state health system.
But in the view of opponents of immigration caps, both countries risk a conflict
with the EU if they implement certain new rules, because they may contradict
laws governing freedom of movement for workers.
Ironically, the British government has always stridently defended the European
single market, as Begg points out. But it seems to be at pains to implement a
pillar of the European treaty: the right of people to move freely across the
union’s internal borders.
Begg and Christa Markwalder, a parliamentarian for the centre-right Radical
Party in Switzerland, have co-authored a policy statement on immigration issued
by the British-Swiss Chamber of Commerce (BSCC).
It is a first collaboration following the recent creation of a task force,
primarily to inform members of the BSCC about significant European issues.
Both immigration and banking issues, are topics of interest in both Switzerland
and Britain. The authors believe they merit a closer look in order to explore
ways to tackle them.
“The idea of the task force is to follow political debates and add our voice to
issues both of interest in Britain and Switzerland,” says Markwalder.