BRUSSELS—Swiss people narrowly agreed to limit the influx of migrants on their soil yesterday, casting an uncertain shadow over the European Union's relations with its small, prosperous neighbor. The restrictions could also make it difficult for Swiss companies and universities to recruit foreign staff and could affect broader research ties between the European Union and Switzerland.
In a referendum held yesterday, 50.3% of voters agreed to “stop mass immigration” by setting yearly quotas. (The idea was put forward by the right-wing party UDC/SVP as a so-called federal popular initiative to amend the constitution.) The referendum's outcome binds the government—which opposed the restrictions—to take legislative action and change Switzerland's immigration system and international treaties within 3 years. The government, known as the Federal Council, said in a statement after the vote that it “will set to work on implementing [quantitative limits and quotas] without delay.”
Swiss businesses had campaigned against the restrictions, warning that they would isolate the country and jeopardize its world-class R&D. According to the European Union's own innovation scoreboard, Switzerland's research and innovation system outperforms all E.U. countries.
An association of chemistry, pharma, and biotech companies called scienceindustries, which includes drugmakers Novartis and Roche, said that Swiss-based companies rely on highly qualified workers from outside Switzerland to keep an edge over their competitors. Out of 67,000 people that its member companies employ in Switzerland, 45% are from abroad, the association says.
Immigration quotas “could make the future recruitment of researchers and their family members from EU countries more burdensome for our company members,” Beat Moser, director general of scienceindustries, tells ScienceInsider in an e-mail. If the restrictions have to go ahead, the group calls for a “simple and efficient system that maintains the access of our companies to the labor market of the EU.”
The economic impact of these measures will depend on the actual quota figures and how the restrictions are applied, says Yves Flückiger, a professor of labor economics and vice-rector of the University of Geneva in Switzerland. For example, the government could decide to apply different restrictions for different economic sectors or geographic areas, Flückiger says.
The vote could also have broader consequences for the country's relations with the European Union. In 1999, Switzerland and the European Union signed a package of bilateral agreements, including a deal on the free movement of persons that allows E.U. citizens to live and work in Switzerland and the other way around. Setting quotas on migrants would violate that principle. "The EU will examine the implications of this initiative on EU-Swiss relations as a whole,” the European Commission said in a statement after the vote.
The 1999 package also includes a research agreement, which allows Swiss scientists to compete for funding from Horizon 2020, the European Union's new 7-year research program, which will be worth €15 billion in the next 2 years. Now, their participation could be in danger, because all seven agreements are linked through a so-called guillotine clause: If one of them ends, the others also cease to have effect.
In fact, Swiss scientists could be among the first knock-on victims of the referendum. Switzerland was expected to include Croatia, which entered the European Union last year, in its agreement on the free movement of persons. “If Switzerland tells us they have to press the pause button on this, then this will have consequences,” says an E.U. source. Switzerland could lose its privileged status as an associated country to Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+, the European Union's higher education funding program, which both include Croatia's inclusion as a precondition to Switzerland's participation.
Switzerland-based scientists have much to lose, as they fared very well under previous E.U. science programs. More than one in four Swiss research proposals secured funding under the Seventh Framework Programme, the predecessor to Horizon 2020. This is the fourth highest success rate on average. Swiss scientists secured €1.27 billion in E.U. research funding between 2007 and 2012, according to figures from Switzerland's State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation. This included about €356 million in coveted basic research grants from the European Research Council.
The country is also home to CERN, the world's largest particle physics laboratory, which says that the referendum will not have any impact on its recruitment. "CERN is an international organisation and hence we do not offer work permits which are potentially subject to quota," a spokesperson tells ScienceInsider in an e-mail.
Switzerland has about 8 million inhabitants, 23.3% of whom are foreigners. According to the commission, about 1 million E.U. citizens live in Switzerland and another 230,000 cross the border daily for work, while 430,000 Swiss live in the European Union.
*Update, 11 February: 10:58 a.m.: This story has been updated to include the response from a CERN spokesperson.
*Clarification, 21 February, 11 a.m.: Switzerland would not be barred from Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+; the country could still participate under certain conditions.