Swiss test for borderless Europe

Swiss test  for borderless Europe

Carolina Porta Nova, 19, had dreams of becoming a schoolteacher in her native Portugal. But grinding recession, government cuts to education and an unemployment rate of about 40 per cent among young people put an end to those plans.

So in October Porta Nova moved to Switzerland, where she quickly found work as a house cleaner in a country whose relatively healthy economy has made it a magnet for job-seekers from the European Union, particularly its distressed southern tier. “I can see no happy future for teachers in Portugal,” she said.

Porta Nova was one of 79,000 migrants to Switzerland last year, helping raise the number of foreign residents by 14 per cent during the past five years, a pace that has begun to alarm some here. After mounting pressure, this month the government reintroduced quotas for work permits for citizens from the EU. The right-wing Swiss People’s Party is now pushing for a referendum on immigration, which could re-establish checks at Swiss borders with EU countries for the first time in five years.

The Swiss are not alone in their reservations about immigration. Declining economies, the rise of nationalist parties and the prospect of citizens from two of the union’s newest and poorest members, Romania and Bulgaria, gaining unrestricted access to EU labour markets has tested the ambitions for a borderless Europe more than at any time since the accord that eliminated most internal boundaries - the Schengen Agreement - went into effect in 1995.

The British government has proposed making it easier to deport some foreigners and requiring migrants to pay for some health care. Denmark reimposed border controls two years ago, under pressure from the right-wing Danish People’s Party. Spain recently required work contracts for Romanians after a fourfold increase in their arrivals, reversing a previous commitment to allow them free access as fellow EU members.

Such steps have highlighted a new tendency by economically stressed EU members to retreat to their own corners after decades of pooling their fortunes. The Swiss decision, in particular, drew a stinging rebuke from Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, who said that the restrictions “disregard the great benefits that the free movement of persons brings to the citizens of both Switzerland and the EU.”

Still, despite the building resistance to migration within the EU, for the vast majority of Europe’s workers a common labour market has not lived up to its promise, and even less so in a time of hardship. Only a third of foreigners residing in the union come from other EU member states, equivalent to 12.8 million people of a total EU population of more than 500 million, according to 2011 data from Eurostat, the EU statistics office.

That relatively low percentage suggests that “the free movement of persons is a fundamental EU freedom that has ironically only worked in practice for those who are economically active,” said Jose Maria de Areilza, a professor of European Union law at the Esade law school in Madrid. For the others, he added, “they have been facing all sorts of limitations that member states have put in place to prevent welfare shopping.”

That is true even in Switzerland, where the economy has remained largely unscathed by the debt crisis that has engulfed most of the surrounding EU. Though the Swiss abide by many of the same rules as EU nations, they are not EU members and have kept their own currency, the franc. They are running a budget surplus. The economy has avoided recession. Unemployment is about 3 per cent, compared with 27 percent in Spain, 18 per cent in Portugal and almost 11 per cent in Italy.

“I think the rest of Europe is used to Switzerland doing things differently, but, when it comes to migration, most European countries actually share the same concerns,” said Patricia von Falkenstein, a former judge who is the president of the Liberal Party in Basel.
Worried about preserving Switzerland’s economic health - and fending off challenges from the far right - the government invoked a “safeguard” clause in its European agreements that allows it to restrict immigration from EU states. For the next year, it will issue five-year work permits to 53,700 citizens of 17 western EU countries and a few thousand permits for citizens of the 10 East European countries that joined the bloc after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Simonetta Sommaruga, the Swiss justice minister, insisted that the Swiss quota decision was “not an unfriendly act against the European Union,” but rather a way to address the widening gap between a robust Swiss economy and the dismal situation elsewhere in Europe, particularly in southern nations where “unemployment is exploding.”

“We want to send a message to European citizens that our labour market is not without limits,” she said. Still, von Falkenstein, the Liberal Party president in Basel, said the quotas were really about “containing political pressure within Switzerland.” The Swiss government, she said, “needs to show that it’s taking the immigration issue seriously or otherwise risk a much more serious problem next year, which could lead to a catastrophic dismantling of all that Switzerland has managed to negotiate with the EU.”

Fought succession

But if the new restrictions were intended to blunt a populist push led by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party - which fought successfully against Swiss membership of the European Union - the party seems unappeased.

Silvia Bar, an official from the Swiss People’s Party, said the new quotas were little more than “symbolic,” since migrants could circumvent the restrictions by applying for short-term work permits until mid-2014, when the limits expire and cannot be renewed.
“Our infrastructure is creaking under the strain,” of new immigrants, the party says in its manifesto. “Congested roads, overcrowded public transport and school classes made up primarily of foreign children are the result.”

It accuses the Swiss authorities of “doing their best to solve the problem of foreigners by naturalising them,” noting that the number of people who have received Swiss citizenship has risen more than fivefold since 1991 to almost 45,000.

“Jobless foreigners often find that the welfare benefits on offer here are more attractive than working back home,” it adds, echoing similar complaints in Britain.

Such arguments have worried the Swiss business lobby, which has largely opposed any migration clampdown, warning of shortfalls of workers in sectors like hostelry and health care. Even quintessential Swiss industries like watchmaking employ large numbers of foreigners.

“Politicians take the short-term view, forgetting that a country like Switzerland was built up thanks to immigration,” said Jean-Frederic Dufour, chief executive of Zenith, a Swiss watchmaker. Indeed, the biggest influx of immigration to Switzerland took place almost 50 years ago, when the country greeted a tide of workers from countries like Spain and Portugal who were escaping poverty and dictatorship.

Joao Ferreira, 52, manager of the Besenstiel restaurant in Basel, emigrated to Switzerland from Portugal in the aftermath of the 1974 revolution that overthrew the country’s fascist dictatorship. He started out washing dishes, before eventually running a restaurant of his own. He now has 12 employees, mostly a mix of Portuguese, Germans, Italians and French.

The migrants arriving today, he said, form “a new and very different generation of Portuguese, who come with real qualifications, rather than barely any education at all.”

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