27 Aug 2020   |   News

Swiss researchers gear up for crunch immigration vote, fearing return to scientific exile

Scientists are fretting about a repeat of 2014, when a vote to curb immigration saw them kicked out of key parts of the EU’s research programme for almost three years

Swiss voters go to the polls in a month to decide whether to cap free movement of citizens from the EU, in a referendum seen as a crunch test of the country's ties with the 27-member bloc.

The vote, were it to succeed, would violate bilateral accords that enhance Swiss access to the EU’s single market, and directly threaten researchers access to the next science programme, Horizon Europe.

“I’m a bit worried about the vote,” said Gian-Luca Bona, CEO of the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology. “This is extremely important for our economy. The special circumstances of COVID-19 mean there are many irrational things happening. There are a lot of emotions around at the moment.”

Bona leads a lab of 1,000 scientists, made up of 60 different nationalities. He fears a repeat of 2014, when a slim majority of Swiss voters backed a similar motion that sought to restore limits on immigration. The EU responded by cutting off full Swiss membership to Horizon 2020, the current research programme. What followed was an almost three-year scramble for Switzerland to regain full access.

Now, in what is essentially a repeat of the 2014 vote, Bona fears the country could be thrust back into scientific exile.

“Infections are growing slowly but steadily,” he said. “The real impact on the economy from COVID-19 could start to show this fall; a second wave could aggravate things. We could see chapter 11-style closures of businesses.”

“The discussion that could follow, around prioritising the Swiss citizens, is the dangerous part in this referendum. I hope rational thinking determines what we do next.”

While not unusual for Switzerland, where plebiscites on specific questions are common, for Brussels, the vote raises the prospect of yet another embarrassing national referendum on the EU.

The threat of being blocked from the full €94.1 billion Horizon programme, which starts next year, is a source of major disquiet for Swiss academics.

After the 2014 experience, they’re fully alive to the danger. On Thursday, a collection of top scientific organisations, including the ETH Board, the Swiss National Science Foundation and Innosuisse, the Swiss Innovation Agency, jointly called for voters to reject the proposal.

“It’s rather open for me, what’s going to happen in this vote,” said Tilman Esslinger, who leads the quantum optics group at ETH Zurich.

“There’s a very special set of circumstances – coronavirus, severe economic challenges. This can amplify in one or the other direction. The world has changed. People probably don’t even know themselves yet how they’ll vote. People have other things on their mind now, like how they will get their kids back into schools safely. They might not be thinking of politics,” Esslinger said.

Political analysts, however, say the initiative faces many obstacles.

“Plenty of things are now running against it. Because of coronavirus, it doesn’t have the monopoly of attention or debate,” says Oscar Mazzoleni, political scientist at the University of Lausanne.

The Swiss will be voting on five separate subjects on September 27, including the purchase of new military airplanes, the length of paternity leave and the right to hunt wolves and other animals.

Support for the Swiss People’s Party, which put the immigration vote on the agenda, is lower than it was six years’ ago, Mazzoleni noted.

The build-up to the vote is short, too, in comparison to the months-long campaigning seen in 2014.

The reaction to the government’s handling of coronavirus is generally positive, meaning the public may not view the upcoming vote as a weapon to punish politicians.

“They delivered the money; they supported the economy during the pandemic. And it’s too early to see the impact of the virus on the economy anyway. The real crisis is still in the future,” Mazzoleni said.

Politicians fear success for the immigration vote would wreck their hopes of putting relations with Brussels on a new footing.

Like the UK, Switzerland is in its own difficult negotiation with the EU, being asked to endorse a new treaty that would require it to routinely adopt single market rules.

The EU views this as merely updating and simplifying the Swiss arrangement, which spans a complex web of more than 120 bilateral deals. But the new treaty also includes demands that the Swiss soften rules protecting wages, the highest in Europe, from cross-border competition by EU workers on temporary assignments. Critics say the treaty infringes Swiss sovereignty.

The country’s relationship with the EU is the “hidden dimension” of the immigration vote, Mazzoleni said

“We’re in a no-man’s land, from a diplomatic point of view, with the EU right now. Brussels is much more focused on the UK. So the future relationship is not part of the referendum debate at the moment,” he said.

More support for immigration

For Nenad Stojanović, professor of political science at the University of Geneva, “The chances are quite high that the initiative will not be accepted. Many people outside Switzerland, who don’t fully understand our tradition of direct democracy, simply presume that people would accept something like this. In the Swiss context, this claim is not supported by the facts,” he said.

There have been seven similar popular initiatives to curb immigration since 1970, said Stojanović. “With one exception, the 2014 vote, the others failed. And this was during all kinds of periods, good economies and bad,” he said.

If anything, Stojanović expects the experience of coronavirus will have strengthened peoples’ perception of foreigners, who account for almost a quarter of the Swiss population.

“The pandemic has shown that without foreign workers, the whole health system would have collapsed,” he said.

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