Debating Free Movement in Switzerland and the UK – Swexit and Brexit

02.06.2016 , in ((Politics)) , ((No Comments))

With the upcoming referendum on Britain’s stay in the European Union – the so-called Brexit vote – and the deadline for reaching an agreement on the implementation of the “Mass Immigration Initiative” coming closer, Great Britain and Switzerland are facing difficulties in their relations with their most important economic partner, the European Union. A comparison of the two situations reveals similarities and differences.

The EU is facing these Western European “headaches” at a similar point in time. However, the United Kingdom is a step further than Switzerland in solving its problem with free movement. While the British population is voting on an agreement, which the UK government reached with the European Council on 18/19 February 2016, Switzerland has not yet completed this decisive step. The date of the UK referendum, 23 June 2016, is important for Swiss European policy as Brussels has told Bern that it is not going to continue its talks on implementing the Mass Immigration Initiative and other European affairs before the Brexit vote occurred. The key concern here is that Brussels cannot make concessions to a non-Member State that go further than those offered to a Member State. For the Federal Council this means that it has to wait until 24 June 2016 before it can continue its dialogue with the Brussels institutions. The Federal Council aims at finding consensus on a safeguard clause, which would allow Switzerland to impose limits on the immigration of EU workers if it reaches a certain threshold. This was indeed the key demand of the Mass Immigration Initiative accepted by the Swiss population on 9 February 2014.

Politicization in Spite of Economic Benefits

A second parallel between the two countries is that they have both strongly benefitted from the free movement regime with many European citizens choosing to work and reside in these countries. To a certain extent, one could argue that it is the economic “success” of free movement in the two countries – as a result of the attractiveness of the British and Swiss labor market – which lies at the origin of the politicization of free movement. Moreover, both countries have a history of skepticism towards immigration from inside and outside Europe.

It is indeed important to recall here that the popular vote of 9 February 2014 was not the first time that the Swiss rejected free movement with its European neighbors. The analysis (in French) of the citizens’ voting behavior showed that it was in fact resistance to free movement that was at the origin of the Swiss rejection of the European Economic Agreement (EEA) on 6 December 1992. Nevertheless, to many observers the “no to free movement” in 2014 came as a surprise. The Swiss population had repeatedly endorsed the European citizens’ free movement rights between 1992 and 2014. It approved the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons as part of the Bilateral Agreements I in 1999, and the two enlargements to the eight Central European countries in 2005, and to Romania and Bulgaria in 2008. In 2014, there was thus a generalized feeling that the “Europeans” had become a privileged class of foreigners, which was to be treated on equal terms with the Swiss population (see Arbenz 1995). This was a confirmation of the “two-circles model” – which foresaw distinct admission rules for immigrants from European and Non-European countries” – developed by the Arbenz Group in the early 1990s. Why this shift in public opinion occurred in 2014 remains unexplained.

The UK also has a long history of resistance to European cooperation on immigration and border matters, but this has for the most part been directed against immigration from outside Europe. It found expression in the country standing apart from the EU’s borders and visa policy from the outset, and a permanent opt-out from the Schengen arrangements. There is little doubt that the free movement of persons has become even more controversial in the UK in the last years. The resistance to free movement of Europeans can – at least partially – be linked to the effects of the 2004 Eastern enlargement, when the UK – along with Ireland and Sweden – opened its labor market straight away for the citizens of the Central and Eastern European Member States. All other European partners, most importantly Germany and Austria, applied temporary restrictions on access to the labor market. This far-reaching liberalization resulted in larger than anticipated numbers of labor migrants coming to the UK in the following years, which partially – but not totally – explains the rise of resistance.

Institutional Difference

The key difference between the situations of the two countries is the institutional venue in which the “malaise” can be addressed. While the UK has been a Member State of the EU since 1971 Switzerland has chosen to stand a part. Being a member provides the UK with different institutional channels for addressing the malaise. As a matter of fact, the UK government put the EU in an uncomfortable situation by linking concessions on free movement to its further remaining in the EU. The European partners faced the choice of either making concessions on a founding principle of the Union – the free movement of persons – or losing an important Member State. The UK’s deal on free movement with the EU, struck in February 2016 – against the backdrop of this difficult choice – foresees an emergency brake allowing the UK to restrict EU migrants’ access to welfare benefits (so-called in-work benefits) and to lower child-care benefits (henceforth indexed to the cost of living for children outside the EU) for the duration of seven years.

Switzerland remains outside of the EU and has lesser institutional possibilities for raising the issue in the different European institutions. The institutional disadvantage combined with the further reaching demand of the Mass Immigration Initiative to establish a quota system for EU migrants makes it seem unlikely that the EU will offer Switzerland further ranging concessions on free movement – irrespective of the outcome of the Brexit vote.

Nicole Wichmann
Network Officer, nccr – on the move

Hear more on the Brexit Referendum at the Annual Conference of the nccr – on the move on Thursday, 23 June 2016: “European Migration and Mobility Regimes Reviewed in the Light of the UK Brexit Referendum”, keynote by Jo Shaw, Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Edinburgh.


Arbenz, Peter. Bericht über eine schweizerische Migrationspolitik. Bern: EJPD, 1995.

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