Once more, political Switzerland is arguing passionately about its favorite topic: relations with the European Union. On September 27, for the thirteenth time since 1992, voters will be able to express their views on Europe, this time with a yes or no on the so called Begrenzungsinitiative – an attempt to limit immigration from EU member states.

The proposal is designed to end the mutual free movement of people between Switzerland and the EU. Proponents are warning urgently that, without action, Switzerland’s population will swell from its current 8.6 million to to as much as 10 million relatively fast. Their posters are particularly conspicuous in sparsely populated rural areas.

Ironically, more than 30 years ago, Ursula Koch, a left-leading Social Democratic Zurich city councilor at the time and later president of the Switzerland’s social Democratic party, declared: “The city is built.”

Switzerland in concrete terms or development that will secure prosperity? New residential and commercial buildings in Zurich West. (Wikimedia Commons)

Earlier this year, every Swiss household received a publication from the supporters of the immigration initiative decrying in screaming type that too many apartments had been built in recent years, and warning against “more concrete over Switzerland.” Clearly, so called “growth fatigue” is an issue for both ends of the political spectrum.

The fact that population growth is an indirect sign of an attractive location gets forgotten in the discussion. Anyone who argues against free movement should consider the economic facts: average annual real GDP per capita from 1992 to 2002 grew by just 0.66 percent. By contrast, since the introduction of free movement, it has increased to 1.02 percent a year – 1.54 times higher. Had the pie not expanded, arguments about distribution would have been all the more intense. Luckily, that was not the case.

Experience has shown that immigration from the EU is cyclical, i.e. driven by the labor market, and  likely to gain importance in years ahead due to demographic developments. Next year, more people in Switzerland will retire than young adults will enter the labor market. The gap will widen yet further thereafter , unless the statutory retirement age is raised to meet the new demographic realities. However, politicians in Bern are currently more finterested in lowering the voting age than raising retirement.

The majority of today’s – mostly well-qualified – EU immigrants are aged between 23 and 34. By contrast, foreigners living in Switzerland aged 55 and above often tend to return to their country of origin. So free movement can compensate – at least partly – for growing labor market strains.

In addition, those who call for more state control and monitoring of immigration and emigration forget the state is fundamentally a poor organizer here. Neither in asylum policy nor in the bureaucratically complex issue of immigration from non-EU countries have the authorities been particularly adept. The familiar adage of “more freedom, less state” could well apply here too.

This article was published in the “Handelszeitung” on September 17, 2020.