Switzerland is an island of stability in Europe, with the continent’s lowest unemployment rate, at 4 percent, and its strongest currency (the Swiss franc).
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t political conflict. An astonishing 27 percent of the country’s 8 million residents are foreigners and there is real concern that future unlimited immigration from European Union countries will strain the small nation’s welfare state and squeeze Swiss citizens out of key jobs.
In other European countries with public concerns about immigration, political parties can basically sideline opposition and ignore public opinion. But Switzerland has a rich history of popular democracy, and many important decisions are taken through voter initiatives. On Sunday, the nation’s voters took the dramatic step of approving a voter initiative that will restore immigration quotas for the country. The vote was very close,with 50.3 percent in favor, but the turnout was about 16 percentage points higher than a typical Swiss election.
The exact details of the immigration limits are to be left up to the Swiss parliament, with the expectation that it will likely approve limits that favor professional and more highly educated workers. Toni Brunner, the president of the conservative Swiss People’s Party, said, “I won’t stipulate any numbers. What is clear we need to be more selective.”
The result was a shock to the Swiss political elite, which almost unanimously opposed the curbs. It also will make EU bureaucrats in Brussels nervous, as it demonstrates the power of populist themes just three months before the entire continent will vote for members of the European Parliament.