Last year in Geneva I was approached by a political activitist and asked to put my name to a petition. I politely declined – and my reply elicited a shocking response.
I should explain, Swiss democracy works in a quirky way. Initiatives that attract more than 100,000 signatures (all are checked to ensure they’re bona fide Swiss voters) can be used to demand an amendment to the Federal Constitution.
When ruled ‘valid’, initiatives are put to the popular vote and, if approved by a majority of the electorate and the cantons, the order is duly made.
The initiative I was being asked to sign was one limiting the number of foreigners allowed into Switzerland. My views on the initiative were irrelevant. I was unable to sign for several reasons. One was that I was a foreigner here so signing would have been hypocrisy. Two, for the same reason, I couldn’t vote anyway so my signature would later have been declared invalid.
The man sighed: “Shame. You’re the sort of foreigner we don’t mind.”
Shocked, I went on my way.
The meeting’s significance came back to me this week as news emerged of a Swiss plan to limit the numbers of people it will allow in from certain poorer EU states.
Immigration quotas on eight central and eastern states are to be extended to 17 other EU countries this month.
Although not in the EU, Switzerland signed up to the bloc’s rules on freedom of movement back in 1999 – but kept the right to enact an exception if it felt swamped.
From 2014 the clause becomes out-of-date so these new quotas can only last 12 more months. However, it seems political activists have, even without my help, produced enough signatures to require two separate referenda to be held, both aimed at limiting immigration.
Never mind what the quotas say about attitudes to foreign workers but the measures look set to test the country’s relations with the EU to the limit.