The Swiss defied projections—and the European Union—when they voted in favor of a cap on immigration in Sunday’s referendum, albeit by the slimmest of margins (50.3 percent). The measure thus approved directly contravenes the terms of Switzerland’s special relationship with the EU (it’s not a member state, but it shares open borders as well as bilateral agreements on everything from traffic and transportation to research and agriculture). EU officials reacted to the development with indignation, and the Swiss economy may suffer from it in the long run, but much of that is beside the point.Here’s what the Yes-Vote is really about:It is not, first and foremost, an expression of Swiss xenophobia akin to the ban on the construction of minarets passed in 2009. The measure does not outlaw immigration per se but merely seeks to curb it. And its intended target is not some unwanted ethnic minority group or packs of foreign welfare leeches, but the heavy stream of mostly skilled workers from largely congenial places like Germany, Italy, and Portugal. About 80,000 migrants are added to a population of eight million every year, of which approximately a quarter are foreigners already. No other OECD-country except Luxembourg has to manage immigration on a comparable scale. In the United States, it would be as if three million new migrants were arriving every year.No other country benefits economically as handsomely from its migrant population as Switzerland does, but it would be misleading to try to view the vote in overly rational terms. It is better understood as a primal scream rather than a calculated policy. The Swiss voted with their guts, not with their heads, and in so doing they followed a deeper instinct felt by many of their European peers. As German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble perceptively commented on the outcome of the referendum: “Of course it shows that in this globalized world, people are increasingly uneasy about unrestricted movement. I think that’s something we must all take very seriously.” Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote:
The non-member state Switzerland merely articulated what was already on the minds of many EU member states. The Swiss have opened a Pandora’s Box which other opponents of the free movement of peoples will now reach into as well. It will no longer suffice for Brussels to pout and point to the principle of freedom of movement to brush off criticisms. There are real problems, and citizens everywhere want to see them solved.
Indeed, many avowed opponents of unrestricted movement welcomed the development with open arms. Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, hailed it as “wonderful news for national sovereignty and freedom lovers throughout Europe.” Likewise, France’s rightwing Front National party said the vote represented a “positive reversal to the destructive dogma of ‘borderlessness’” and would surely strengthen France’s resolve to “stop mass immigration and manage its own borders.” And Bernd Lucke, leader of the Euroskeptic Alternative for Germany, demanded a similar referendum on immigration as well.Lastly, in voting to restrict immigration, the Swiss also joined the larger, Europe-wide trend of national electorates rejecting the EU, rebelling against the political establishment, and asserting mastery over their own national fates. That, rather than any latent xenophobia or perceived economic interests, is what determined the outcome of the referendum. As an op-ed in Die Zeit said:
So what was it all about then? To put it in the words of a US-diplomat: “F— the EU.” A referendum on mass migration turned into a plebiscite about the image the Swiss have of their country, in which the conservative, rural areas won out against the liberal, urban ones.
EU member states can’t hold similar referenda on the free movement of peoples within the Eurozone, of course. But what if they could? How would Britain vote? Or the Netherlands? Or France? It is this question that now plagues Europe in the wake of the Swiss vote. And its citizens may want it answered sooner rather than later.