Swiss neutrality has its limits, apparently. To the shock of many observers, the Swiss voted this week to significantly limit the level of immigration from the European Union into their small country. Despite the vocal opposition of the federal government, the controversial cap was adopted by a small but decisive margin.
The immediate consequences stemming from this referendum are not clear, although business groups have stated that the Swiss economy will suffer if the free flow of immigrants is in any way curtailed. The vote now requires the Swiss government to reinstate quotas on the numbers of EU immigrants who enter the country within the next three years, returning to the policy that had been in place before a treaty was entered into in 2002. Although not formally an EU member, Switzerland is highly dependent on its giant European neighbors for trade and, as a result, has entered into a number of treaties with the EU to mimic many aspects of full membership.
Brussels is not amused by this inconvenient and embarrassing poll result. Switzerland, a country of just 8 million, is the most prosperous country on the continent and has been a beacon of light to many neighboring Europeans. The Swiss should expect retaliatory steps to be taken by the EU bureaucracy in response to the referendum. Switzerland participates in a large number of EU programs, which results in significant financial benefits for the tiny landlocked federation.
Currently, approximately one-fourth of the population consists of foreigners, alarming many Swiss who are concerned about the future integrity of their country. Taking advantage of the direct democracy tradition that still plays an important role in modern Swiss life, the right-wing Swiss People's Party launched its "Stop Mass Immigration" campaign to give voice to these concerns and again exert some level of control over the quantity and quality of immigration.
The debate in Switzerland over the real benefits of unlimited immigration echoes similar discussions occurring across Europe, including in Britain, where many Conservative politicians, as well as the single-issue UK Independence Party, continue to challenge the merits of EU membership. The leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, Geert Wilders, has indicated that he sees the Swiss move as a precedent that even full EU members could follow.
When a country's economy is humming along nicely, then questions about immigration are often not pressing ones. Both politicians and voters are content to shrug off such difficult and divisive questions and instead enjoy the benefits that derive from increased labor supplies and declining wages. However, when the economy turns, critics of unrestricted immigration are able to gain wider and wider appeal.
What is the proper function of an immigration policy? At least in theory, it should be about determining the optimal population growth rate for your country, subtracting out the natural demographic trends that are already occurring, and settling on a policy that allows for immigrants to make up the difference while keeping an eye on the skill sets and industry sectors most in need of further workers.
However, modern immigration policies are frequently set for a variety of reasons other than the straightforward calculations above. Too often, though, these reasons are never fully explained and publicly acknowledged. For example, more immigrants can be admitted in order to fulfill a sense of public duty to the poor and disenfranchised from other, less prosperous countries. This charitable sentiment can operate as some sort of redistributive tax that must be paid in order to morally justify the wealthier country's good fortune. Also, excessive immigration could be useful for a political party that feels it would disproportionally benefit from the influx of new voters.
Today, unfortunately, it seems that to the self-appointed champions of unrestricted immigration, any attempt to approach immigration policy objectively reeks of racism and prejudice. In their eyes, the long-term subjective benefits far outweigh any short-term tensions or distortions.
What makes the Swiss vote particularly interesting is that looking at the immigration flows occurring on a global basis, one might have expected that the movement of a few thousand Czechs and Estonians and Portuguese from their developed but sluggish economies into Switzerland would be relatively unproblematic, given the cultural and linguistic commonalities across Europe. But clearly, the Swiss are beginning to believe that the pluses of mass immigration don't outweigh the minuses, even in this relatively contained situation.
The Swiss referendum is an important example of a country's deciding to take control of its borders and ownership of a key contributor to its population growth and demographics. By refusing to abdicate their responsibility here, Swiss voters have recognized that these are issues far too important to be left to mere chance and circumstance.
Timothy Spangler is a writer and commentator who divides his time between Los Angeles and London. His radio show, "The Bigger Picture with Timothy Spangler," airs every Sunday night from 10 p.m. to midnight Pacific time on KRLA AM 870. To find out more about Timothy Spangler and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.