Swiss Voter have decisively rejected tougher rules on expelling foreign criminals which the country’s political far-right had hoped would win support on the back of a wave of anti-immigration sentiment sweeping across Europe.
The “enforcement initiative”, proposed by the powerful Swiss People’s party (SVP), could have seen foreigners rejected Nationalist plan for relatively minor offences, such as threatening public officials. But it was defeated in a referendum on Sunday, with 59 per cent voting against, according to final results.
Its rejection followed a counter offensive mobilised by business leaders, civil organisations and academics against the SVP’s populist campaign, which included posters showing black sheep representing foreign criminals.
Patrick Emmenegger, political scientist at the University of St Gallen, said the counter offensive was “one of the most aggressive we have seen in Switzerland” and could have lessons for June’s UK referendum on EU membership.
When opponents play on emotions and populism, “you have to get your hands dirty, and sharpen your message”, Mr Emmenegger said.
Switzerland has been relatively unaffected by the crisis created by thousands of refugees fleeing wars in countries such as Syria, especially compared with neighbouring Germany and Austria. But fears have risen of uncontrolled immigration, with foreigners comprising about a quarter of Switzerland population.
Voters on Sunday also rejected a proposal by Swiss young socialists for a ban on financial “speculation” in foodstuffs, which the country’s large commodity trading industry feared would have hit markets for financial instruments used to “hedge” farmers against price swings. However, the proposal was backed by 40 per cent of voters — significantly higher than forecast.
The Swiss also voted by 57 per cent to 43 per cent in favour of a second road tunnel through the Gotthard mountain, which the Swiss government argued was needed so the original 1980 tunnel connecting north and south Europe could be renovated. Opponents of the second road tunnel feared it would further damage the Alpine mountain environment.
The clear rejection of the enforcement initiative, which only a few months ago appeared likely to succeed, pointed to limits of the influence of the ultraconservative SVP, which won the most votes in last October’s parliamentary elections.
“Civil society has woken up and made clear that the legal state, protection of minorities and humanity are more important than xenophobia and the totalitarian power claims of a single party,” said Christian Levrat, president of the Swiss Social Democrats.
Opponents had mobilised an “enormous campaign”, Albert Rösti, designated SVP president, admitted on Swiss television, but he said his party had still ensured a debate on how best to protect Switzerland.
The SVP has successfully led campaigns against Switzerland joining the EU, and in February 2014 won a narrow victory in favour of curbs on immigration from EU countries, which had be implemented within three years.
The 2014 vote put Switzerland on a collision course with Brussels as implementation could violate the principle of the free movement of people, to which Switzerland has agreed as part of its extensive trade deals with the EU. Approval of the enforcement initiative would have worsened relations.
Switzerland had already moved to tighten rules on foreign criminals, but not sufficiently to satisfy the SVP. The enforcement initiative set out a complex schedule of offences requiring automatic expulsion, and foreigners with a previous criminal record could have been automatically ejected for relatively minor violations.
The Swiss government feared the proposals would have undermined the discretion of courts and violate European agreements on human rights.
International businesses argued the enforcement initiative would have made Switzerland less attractive for vital foreign skilled workers. Ahead of the campaign, Paul Bulcke, the Belgian chief executive of Nestlé, the world’s biggest food and drinks company, warned that the trend towards business-unfriendly political initiatives — also including the proposed ban on foodstuffs speculation — risked undermining Switzerland’s reputation for stability.