Switzerland has moved a step closer to breaking free of the European Union (EU) after the government allowed proponents of a campaign to curb immigration to start canvassing public support for a referendum.
The country is not a member of the EU but currently has open borders with the bloc as a price for access to the Single Market. However, the populist Swiss Freedom Party (SVP) have been pushing for a referendum on the matter.
The SVP is now free to start collecting signatures for its “for a moderate immigration” initiative, and if they gain more than 100,000 signatures, a referendum will be held, 20 Minutes reports.
If the people then vote for the change, Switzerland’s Federal Council will have a year to negotiate the end of free movement with Brussels, changing or scrapping bilateral agreements with the bloc.
Switzerland’s relationship with Brussels is framed in a series of bilateral agreements whereby they accept various provisions of EU law in return for access to the single market. Although EU officials have repeatedly said freedom of movement, one of the ‘four freedoms’ is non-negotiable, Switzerland came to an agreement with the EU in 2016 which prioritised Swiss jobseekers over EU citizens.
The population of Switzerland is around 8.3 million, with around one in four being of foreign origin, and the SVP has long aimed to bring net-immigration down to zero.
According to le News, Switzerland’s population surged by 16 per cent from 7.2 million in just 16 years since 2000. The majority of this growth came from the expanding foreign population, which boomed from 1.4 to 2.0 million.
The largest number of the new arrivals came from EU and European Free Trade Association (EFTA) nations. There were 875,000 Europeans in Switzerland in 2000. By 2016, there were 1,362,000 – a 56 per cent increase.
Switzerland is unusual in the number of federal referendums it holds every year. They can be held on any number of issues: of the three held in 2017 one was on immigration, another on the corporate tax code and the third for the creation of a fund for national roads and infrastructure.
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