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17 Feb, 2014 13:34

Swiss freeze: EU retaliates as Bern rolls out immigration quotas

Swiss freeze: EU retaliates as Bern rolls out immigration quotas

Brussels has frozen research grants for Swiss universities worth hundreds of millions of euros in retaliation after Switzerland voted to cap the number of immigrants entering the country in a nationwide referendum.

The retaliatory move by the EU comes just one day after Switzerland refused to sign a ‘freedom of movement’ agreement with Croatia, which would have given Croatians unrestricted access to the Swiss employment market.

In addition to ejecting Switzerland from the so-called Horizon 2020, an 80-billion-euro ($109.5 billion) research and innovation program that distributes funds over seven years (2014-2020), Brussels has suspended Switzerland from the Erasmus student exchange program, ATS news agency reported.

In 2011-12, 2,600 Swiss students took advantage of Erasmus, while Switzerland played host to some 2,900 foreign students through the EU-funded exchange program.

Erasmus has a 14.7-billion-euro budget through to the year 2020.

The Swiss government had hoped to create 8,000 new jobs through the EU grant program, yet an increasing number of Swiss citizens believe the trade-off in terms of higher immigration rates is not worth it.

“Switzerland is on a slippery slope of isolating its students and academics from the outside world,” Elizabeth Gehrke, vice-chairwoman of the European Students’ Union (ESU), said in a statement issued shortly after the referendum.

“This could have devastating effects that would be difficult to reverse.”

Swiss fretful in face of open borders

On February 9, the majority of Swiss civilians – albeit by a narrow margin of 50.3 percent – voted in favor of dramatically limiting the number of immigrants from the EU, thus ceasing free movement within the bloc that was established in 2002.

The referendum was a major success for Switzerland’s right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which tapped into the national mood by arguing that more EU citizens moved to the landlocked country of 8 million people than had been initially anticipated, thus putting a squeeze on the national budget.

The SVP wants to make it easier to deport foreigners from the country if they don’t integrate, as well as deny foreigners government services and benefits.

The voter turnout of 56 percent was reportedly the highest in decades.

Swiss institutions of learning will feel the pinch from Brussels’ tit-for-tat retaliation: Lausanne’s Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) said it stands to lose 80 to 100 million francs annually in research grants, while ETH, the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, could experience a similar slash in funding.

Immigration caps: Wave of the future?

Switzerland’s controversial move to limit the number of immigrants says a lot about the increasing anxiety about immigration across Europe.

Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), called the results of the Swiss referendum “wonderful news.”

“A wise and strong Switzerland has stood up to the bullying and threats of the unelected bureaucrats of Brussels.”

Meanwhile, Austria’s far-right FPO party said Austria would vote accordingly if given the choice, while the France’s National Front praised Switzerland’s “lucidity.”

There’s been no shortage of handwringing over multiculturalism in general and the free movement of citizens in particular inside the 28-member union.

Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s anti-immigration National Front party, is gaining followers among mainstream voters, according to a poll results released this week by TNS-Sofres.

Forty-six percent of individuals polled said Le Pen is “the face of patriotic conservatives, with traditional values,” while 43 percent said she leads the “nationalistic, xenophobic extreme right,” the survey showed.

Analysts fear that with tiny Switzerland leading the way in the push to limit the freedom of movement of immigrants inside of the European Union, anti-immigration parties may gain a yet another boost in popularity.