February 4, 2017
The upset was massive. The result of the referendum divided the country between cities, typically voting No, and periphery which voted Yes. Whilst all polls and experts predicted No would win, a tiny majority voted to exclude EU immigrants from moving in. All major world newspapers predicted the economy would be much affected by skills shortage.
Sounds familiar? Yet the year was 2014, the majority only 50.3% and targeted immigrants were… mostly Germans and French as the country was Switzerland.
Faced with an upsurge of immigrants in 2012 and 2013 recognised by the OECD as the world’s fastest, the Confederation saw its population increase by 1.5%, passing the 8 Million residents bar, stressing its infrastructure and health services. “Trop c’est trop” uttered the populist leader of the Swiss People’s Party Christophe Blocher.
Here’s a shorter version in English of my post of last week. To read how EU, using its knowledge policy of Education, Research and Innovation, made Switzeralnd confront its populist demons I suggest a Bernese classic about confronting inhibitions. Song, in Bernese, by a mixed Yemmish and Elsassian: Stephan Eicher, Hemmige, Album Engelberg (1991, 3’ 25”).
The Union strikes back – swiftly
However, what much differed from Brexit, was the European Union reaction. The referendum targeted a federal law mandated by Switzerland complex bundle of Association agreements with the EU: it was to allow the free movement of Croatians, which has just joined the EU, across Swiss borders. When the Swiss reneged, it took only a fortnight for the EU to stop negotiations on Association of Switzerland to its education and research programmes.
There was panic in Swiss cosy universities. Almost 100.000 locals leave yearly for the EU each year under the Erasmus programme. Offering salaries double than their neighbour, Switzerland imported many EU top researchers, attracting a high share of top level grantees of the European Research Council (the ERC – and they come with their high EU grants attached).
The Commission move touched the Confederation at the heart of its strategy based on knowledge and education, “the coal and steel of XXIst century” according to State Secretary for Education, Research and Innovation Dell’Ambrogio. True, Switzerland passed laws ensuring all local researchers involved in EU programmes would receive funding equivalent to the loss of EU grants. It also launched an Erasmus equivalent, the “Swiss European Mobility Programme”, but Swiss clout was affected: grantees dwindled, coordination of European projects by Swiss companies and universities (that can still access it on a 3rd country status, like US or Japan) fell from 4% to… nothing (0.3%).
Despite having negotiated a ‘partial’ association allowing Swiss to receive (and import) ERC grantees and a separate deal for Erasmus students, more than a billion Euro of potential EU funding was lost in 2014 and 2015 when comparing Horizon 2020, the EU Research and Innovation programme spanning 2014 to 2020, to its predecessor.
A long and winding road
Fact is that, faced with EU’s stiff reaction, the Swiss Government had partially opened its country to Croatians, just fixing quotas, in exchange for the above-mentioned partial accession to Horizon 2020. This of course enraged the Swiss People’s Party, which is part of its Federal Government pact, and other supporters of stopping immigration, commanding some 40% of Swiss Assembly members.
However, this was not sufficient. Researchers and business, heavily biased towards high-tech sectors, threatened to leave the country as witnessed in this Guardian article. The mobility and networking offered by the EU knowledge market was appealing and Switzerland risked losing its most precious asset: local and imported quality brains.
2016 saw the negotiation toughen, with both the EU and the Swiss People’s Party urging Switzerland to clarify its position. According to Swiss law, results of Votations (as the frequent local referenda are called) have to be implemented within three years. The clock was ticking and the EU negotiator stated it would be either “full access” – (in all its meanings) – “or lock-out” (ibidem).
The latest pre-Christmas rumours mentioned rather hypocritical positions, such as fixing quotas higher than past flows of 2012-2013 plus ‘safeguard’ measures, but the Swiss Federal Parliament surprised me on 16 December by announcing it renounced quotas. Despite a priority given to local workers and safeguard measures, in case of upsurges, the People’s Party enraged, promising a new referendum. Yet the rest of the Assembly faced the nationalists, overturning the results of the 2014 Votation.
I expected that news to be taken up by British papers, mentioning lessons for Britain, but on the following day terror struck Berlin and a murder shook Ankara. So the Swiss move went unnoticed.
Again, the EU reacted swiftly, fully opening up Horizon 2020 to the mountaineers ‘as in the old times’ as of 1st January 2017. All was forgiven to the Swiss, who dared confront their populists in the name of the free movement of knowledge.
With my colleague Maryline, Counsellor for Science in the Swiss Mission to the Union, we met for breakfast near Place du Luxembourg in Brussels, as I used to do with her predecessor, before the Swexit Votation. That morning I promised her to write this little known story that starts nasty, but ends well. That’s now done.
Tomorrow, I think I’ll invite her British colleague for breakfast, at the same Caffé Italiano.