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Referendum: Swiss to vote on ending EU agreement

© Miriam Doerr |

On 27 September 2020, Swiss voters have many decisions to make. This time the list of votes includes decisions on fighter jets, hunting, tax deductions for child care and paternity leave. Probably the most important among them is a decision on whether to accept a proposal to end the EU agreement on the free movement of people between Switzerland and the bloc, known as the Limitation Initiative.

The agreement between Switzerland and the EU on the free movement of people allows EU citizens to live, work and study in Switzerland, subject to certain requirements, while allowing Swiss citizens to do the same in the EU.

It is one of a package of seven bilateral agreements that Switzerland and the EU have negotiated and agreed that includes a deal that gives Swiss businesses direct access to the European market. If the agreement on free movement of people is terminated then the other six agreements automatically cease to apply under a mechanism known as the guillotine clause.

In 2000, the agreements were accepted by a majority (67.2%) of Swiss voters.

The Limitation Initiative aims to end the free movement of people with the EU. It also prohibits Switzerland from entering into any new international obligations that grant freedom of movement to foreign citizens.

If the initiative is accepted it would trigger the unravelling of the six other agreements, including the one that gives Switzerland access to the EU market. Switzerland’s Federal Council would then have 12 months to negotiate with the EU. If negotiations failed then all of the agreements would end within 30 days. Some refer to this scenario as Swexit, an outcome akin to Brexit.

Those behind the initiative think Switzerland is currently faced with mass immigration, which they argue is increasing unemployment and threatening the prosperity, freedom and safety of Swiss citizens.

However, the Federal Council believes that the current arrangement with the EU meets the best interests of the nation and its citizens and ensures a well balanced relationship with Switzerland’s principle trading partner. Without the current package of agreements Swiss prosperity and jobs would be at risk, it argues.

A majority of the Federal Council, Switzerland’s executive branch, parliament (53 yes, 142 no, 2 abstentions), and the Council of States, Switzerland’s upper house (5 yes, 37 no, 2 abstentions) reject the plan.

Political party support for the vote low. The only party where voters appear firmly in favour of the initiative is the Swiss People’s Party (UDC/SVP), according to a poll published by RTS on 20 August 2020. All other major parties are polling majorities against it. Overall 61% of voters polled rejected the initiative.

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