By Laura Carolina Silva Aya
Published in French on 7 Oct, 2020.
On September 27th, Switzerland held a federal referendum to determine a number of political initiatives including paternity leave, changes to hunting laws and whether or not it should maintain its agreement with the EU to allow the free movement of people across borders. Through Switzerland’s unique system of direct democracy, the latter “l’initiative de limitation” proposed voiding the agreement with the EU in order to impose tighter restrictions on immigration. After a long campaign, it was rejected by 62% of voters, with only the cantons of Ticino, Schwyz, Glarus and Appenzell Innerrhoden voting in favour of the proposal by a slim margin.
The initiative was brought forward by the Swiss People’s Party, otherwise known as the Democratic Union of the Centre (Union démocratique du centre, UDC), a far-right conservative party. They argued that “unchecked and uncontrolled” immigration has placed undue pressure on individual salaries, Swiss sovereignty, and social welfare systems across the country, in addition to exacerbating poverty and unemployment. Though rhetoric surrounding the vote was couched in terms of protection for Swiss labourers, for many, the initiative represented a xenophobic and nationalist response to the presence of ‘undesirable’ foreign workers in Switzerland.
Indeed, this is not the first time this political party has attempted to bring up this issue. This particular campaign was trying to replicate the momentum of their 2014 attempt to curb immigration, which consisted of a similar referendum narrowly approving an initiative to introduce quotas for immigrants from the EU. However, precisely because the agreement allowing the free movement of people was in force, the proposal could not be applied in ways that were satisfactory to the organizers – thus compelling them to sponsor last Sunday’s “initiative de limitation”.
Meanwhile, those opposed to the initiative argued that the disadvantages of the initiative would far outweigh the benefits, as economic repercussions of damaging relations with the EU (Switzerland’s largest trading partner) would be too severe, and limiting cross-border mobility would infringe on the rights of Swiss citizens to live and work in Europe. Though Switzerland is not an EU member, it has entered into a series of agreements with the EU that provide it access to the European market – which allows Swiss citizens to live, work, and study in the EU, with European citizens permitted to do the same in Switzerland.
The key to the consequences of the referendum lies in the fact that it was an ‘all or nothing’ vote. Because the agreement on free movement is part of a larger package of accords with the EU, by pulling out of this particular one Switzerland would have rendered the whole package of agreements null, thus seriously isolating the country and impacting its relationship with the EU in everything from trade to research.
Student Engagement Closer to Home
Though it was a question contemplated on a federal scale, closer to home, the proposal would have seriously altered the lives of many students, staff, and faculty members at the Graduate Institute. Those individuals living, working, and/or traveling to and from France would have faced legal, political, and economic instability. Undoubtedly, the initiative would have been most detrimental to Swiss and European individuals – but it would have also negatively impacted the larger IHEID community as a whole, given that many individuals (especially students) rely on goods and services provided in nearby France or Europe in order to make ends meet.
And yet, despite both the magnitude of the potential repercussions of the vote, as well as the substantial debate taking place within Swiss public life, there was a notable lack of discussion at IHEID in the months and weeks leading up to the vote. There was no official communication by the administration, nor any student body representatives regarding the vote. While it is perhaps understandable why the parties involved might not seek to convey a stance regarding national politics; however, some students felt that there should have been more of a dialogue about the issue, especially given that many students, faculty and staff would have been met with uncertainty about their future at the Graduate Institute.
The issue was eventually brought to the attention of GISA and the student body thanks to the efforts of Matthieu Guillier, a second-year MIA student. In the weeks preceding the national referendum, Matthieu brought a motion to the GISA board, and collected the necessary signatures in order to trigger a student-wide vote on the following statement:
“GISA formally opposes the Initiative de Limitation and strongly encourages those able to vote in the referendum on September 27th to refuse the proposed changes.”– Graduate Institute Student Association (GISA)
In explaining his motivation behind bringing the issue forward, Matthieu said, “I saw this ad [of] the person sitting on Switzerland. And I realized I didn’t know about it, and I knew that lots of people didn’t really know about it either. Usually the IHEID community is quite vibrant in terms of discussions, and I felt like I hadn’t heard of it anywhere. So what bothered me was the fact that this vote had the potential to have far-reaching implications for all of us at the Institute, and no one was really talking about it.”
Concerned for its implications, he was determined to bring the issue to the attention of the IHEID student body – not only to help bring visibility of the issue to students who were not aware of what was going on, but also provoke his Swiss peers to reflect on their own position: “For me, it was especially about encouraging those who could vote, to go vote. I mean, I personally am against the initiative, but I consider it even more important to create discussion and conversation”.
Matthieu’s efforts certainly paid off. In the end, GISA formally opposed the Initiative de Limitation, with 93% of students who voted endorsing the statement. In addition, The Graduate Press also released information on the vote in order to inform students, as well as a statement expressing the Editorial Board’s strong opposition to the vote.
In the end, rejection of the initiative has meant a continuation of the freedom of movement for people between Switzerland and the EU and a (symbolic) strengthening of the relationship between the two. For Matthieu, however, the most important thing was encouraging his fellow students to stay engaged. He said that given recent political developments around the world, it’s not enough to just hope things will go well: “We’re not in an era when passivity and thinking that everything will go well is a good political position. I guess what I want my message to be: Go vote. Stay engaged”.
It is a message that has and will surely continue to resonate with students at the Graduate Institute.
Header photo by Anne Lee Steele.
Embedded photos by Sandra Silva.