Among them is the Effingen village mayor, a member of the Aargau Green Party. Andreas Thommen is Secretary General of the Ecopop association. He has campaigned against overpopulation, the theme of the popular initiative to limit immigration in Switzerland to 0.2% of the population per year, in order to curb the environmental impact of population growth linked to immigration, the highest in Europe.
“The ecological balance has long been destroyed in Switzerland. We want to preserve nature. Is it worth it, in the name of economic success, to put concrete everywhere, and not to leave any other choice for our children? To leave as legacy to our children a country which is completely dependent on the outside, whether in terms of food, energy or raw materials? I am very clear that it’s not a world I want to leave to my children,” says Thommen.
Ecopop’s proposal has stirred an already heated controversy. In February, the Swiss voted for an initiative launched by the UDC, the Swiss most conservative right wing party, that establishing quotas for foreigners, though without quantifying limits.
The new proposal wants to limit the number of immigrants to 16,000 people a year, five times less than today.
On the streets of Bern, opinions over its merits are mixed.
“This is a disaster. Just because we cannot be excluded from the rest of Europe. We’re at the center of Europe and we cannot close our borders,” one man told euronews.
“We agree that it is necessary to limit the arrival of so many people compared to the population and size of the country, but there’s a limit to that. This is too restrictive,” said another man. “It’s getting a little xenophobic” adds his wife.
One female shopper told euronews: “There are lots of people who come here just to take advantage of Switzerland, because we opened our doors to everyone; many people come here and don’t do anything, they just take advantage!”
Switzerland now has 8 million inhabitants, a quarter of which are foreigners. As Europe’s most densely populated country, Ecopop campaigners believe Switzerland can not afford more demographic pressure.
The group’s spokesperson, Anita Messere, insists the initiative is in no way xenophobic and is fighting against a logic of exponential growth. And the immigration threshold requested by Ecopop is still higher than in other European countries.
“It is not a racial issue. It is really a problem of numbers. With 73,000 more people coming in each year, it represents 40000 more homes to build, and 56,000 more cars! That’s what immigration induced in 2013. We just want to reduce the number of people allowed in the country, to have a lesser impact on the landscape,” says Messere.
Arguments the Swiss government rejects amid fear that Ecopop’s initiative will compromise the bilateral agreements that govern trade between Switzerland and the European Union.
Based on freedom of movement, the agreements have already been questioned after the February vote.
If Ecopop is successful that will create turmoil for business, according to Cristina Gaggini, one of the heads of Swiss Economy, the country’s main business federation: “Concretely, it means that our companies will have difficulties hiring staff, since the quota which is set is extremely low. It is not even enough to absorb the demand in terms of political refugees.”
“On the other hand, with the EU we’re already in a relatively difficult situation since the vote on February 9th. We have to find a compromise solution, and it will take some time. So a second consecutive vote on the same subject in the same year, I think will pummel discussions with the European Union for a very long time,” added Gaggini.
With low unemployment, and a lack of higher education graduates or skilled labour, Switzerland’s nationals alone can not meet the demand of enterprises for workforce.
Jean Marc Probst, President of the Federation of Swiss trade associations, runs a machinery business. The construction sector is largely dependent on foreign labour.
“The last mechanics I hired are French, cross border workers. I also hired Italians, people who are in markets where there is not full employment. And I hired people who are highly skilled, people that I can not find on the Swiss market. So for me to develop and maintain my business, taking into account that some are retiring, I need this foreign labour,” said Probst.
The medical sector is among those worried by the Ecopop initiative. We visit the University Hospital of the canton of Vaud in Lausanne.
With some 10,000 employees, foreigners make up half the workforce.
The risk of compromising the bilateral agreements, which among others regulates research exchanges, is added to that of not being able to tap into the pool of foreign labour.
Pierre-Francois Leyvraz is Director General of the University Hospital:
“It would be absolutely disastrous for us, because the hospital would just not be able to function. Beyond that, research and medicine are purely international. So we will no longer attract foreign researchers or doctors, because they will no longer have interest in working in a country where they can not access European subsidies and the global world in fact.
But in addition, the risk is that our own Swiss researchers will not want to stay here! “
At least two-thirds of migrants in Switzerland come from European Union countries. Since the implementation of bilateral agreements, their number is constantly increasing. The crisis has reinforced the phenomenon, and many companies are abusing the system according to Ecopop supporters
“If there is a choice of 300 million workers in Europe, if there is the choice of 50 million unemployed people in Europe who are prepared to come to Switzerland to work for nothing, this is paradise, of course, the employers are all for it! But this is only a very selfish view of companies,” said Thommen.
An accusation aimed particularly at firms which have de-localised, and also benefit from low taxes, and low labor legislation.
Realities that vary according to regions, however. Better higher education policies, and higher taxes for businesses would be better options than to curb immigration too strictly, argues one of the heads of Switzerland’s largest union. If bilateral agreements are compromised, employers may rely more on short-term contracts, without and social protection according to Rita Schiavi.
“In the past, Switzerland has established the status of seasonal workers, and people who came to work could not bring their families with them.This is not possible with the citizens of the European Union since we have these agreements.. European migrants now have the right to continue living in Switzerland, for example if they lose their job after a few years working here, which other migrants don’t have.. It would be a big step backwards in terms of migrants’ rights.” said Schiavi.
Whether the initiative is successful or not, there is no doubt that immigration will remain at the heart of the debate in the campaign for the Swiss parliamentary elections in 2015.