On February 9, a small majority of Swiss voters approved a proposal by the right-wing populist Swiss People’s Party (SVP) to significantly limit migration inflows from other European countries. The Swiss vote garnered attention across Europe because it now requires the renegotiation of certain agreements between the European Union and Switzerland — a non-member — which had thus far been ensured by bilateral treaties. The issues at stake are the free movement of goods, capital, services, and, most importantly, people — the EU’s “Four Freedoms.” Based on the referendum, the number of Germans, French, or Polish citizens allowed to migrate to Switzerland will be contingent on a quota system.
Another reason for the attention is that Europe is seeing the strongest voices of renationalization since the foundation of the EU in 1992. The SVP’s success is, so far, the most remarkable manifestation of the potential impact of these political forces. The developments in Switzerland offer three crucial insights about the political development of the EU and its member states.
The first lesson is that this episode is not about immigration per se, but about fears over globalization. Survey data shows a clear rejection of immigration and multiculturalism by the 15 to 25 percent of European voters who constitute Europe’s right-conservative electorate. However, majorities in most European societies are concerned with safeguarding cherished local and national customs that are supposedly under siege.
For this reason, the notions of open borders can be rejected by majorities of European voters, as happened in the Swiss referendum. The 50.3 percent who rejected immigration represented a wide range of voters: liberals and conservatives, urban and rural voters, men and women, and citizens with different levels of education. Studies even indicate that many Swiss voters with a left-liberal worldview approved of this one aspect of the right-conservative agenda.
Secondly, this is not about the particularities of the Swiss political system, but about the potential of right-wing populist parties all over Europe. The SVP’s proposal to limit immigration through a nation-wide referendum was resisted by all other political forces, civil society actors such as churches, unions, and employer organizations, and most of the media. The SVP made use of its remarkable organizational capacity and campaigning skills to reach out far beyond its narrow electoral constituency.
The Swiss referendum shows that even while right-wing populist parties struggle to gain more but 30 percent of votes in elections, they can set the national political agenda. Even though the aging societies of Europe are in need of skilled migration, substantial shares of European electorates sympathize with right-wing populism on this issue. This shows the constraints faced by established, moderate political forces when responding rationally to many contemporary challenges.
The third and final lesson is that it is not economic imbalances that are dividing European electorates, but culture wars. While some commentators have pointed to Swiss fears about increased economic competition due to migration, Switzerland’s extremely low unemployment figures and its remarkable growth rates since the 1990s run counter to these assumptions.
To the contrary, European survey data suggests that fears over European integration and multiculturalism are significantly more widespread in European countries with fewer economic concerns. Political competition in the prosperous nations of Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Austria, and Switzerland is dominated by fierce conflicts between multiculturalism and renationalization. Strong right-wing populist forces propel these debates and not only complicate the search for fruitful solutions, but also weaken social ties domestically and across national borders.
The recent developments in Switzerland demonstrate the widespread popular concerns over globalization, the potential impact of right-wing populist parties in many European democracies, and the culture wars dividing contemporary European society. All three phenomena constrain cooperation at the supranational level in Europe. And they show the possible repercussions for those seeking political solutions to achieving truly multicultural societies.
Timo Lochocki is a lecturer in comparative politics and migration at Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and a non-resident transatlantic fellow with the Migration & Society program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) in Berlin