Swiss-EU Pragmatism on Immigration Will Have Limited Bearing on Brexit Negotiations

September 23, 2016 11:45 AM

The emerging notion among Brexit optimists that the United Kingdom could use Switzerland as a template for negotiating new immigration arrangements with the European Union is filled with holes.

EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker visited Switzerland for meetings with the government earlier this week. His focus was the status of Swiss immigration laws and the related issue of a broader new EU-Switzerland Framework Agreement to legally consolidate the over one hundred bilateral agreements that tie the European Union and Switzerland together. Looming over the negotiations has been the degree to which they would offer hints about the position of the European Union on the issue of the free movement of labor in the upcoming Brexit negotiations with the United Kingdom. In the end, however, the outcome of the discussion seems positive for Switzerland and largely irrelevant for Britain’s muddled exit from the European Union.

The European Commission and Swiss authorities appear to have come up with a potential solution to the immigration issue created back in 2014, when the Swiss electorate voted to “end mass-immigration to Switzerland”—including the free movement of labor arrangements with the European Union. Later this week, the Swiss parliament will vote on a new set of proposals to introduce a “domestic worker preference” into Swiss law, in principle requiring Swiss employers to give priority to hiring Swiss workers as opposed to the present equal status of Swiss and EU citizens. Juncker has signaled this is a solution the European Union could potentially accept. It would also allow the European authorities to avoid following through on their threat to cut all bilateral economic agreements with Switzerland, as a result of Swiss undermining of free movement of labor.

The devil will be in the details. Still, as the US H-1B visa program that also ostensibly requires preference for US workers suggests, such politically palatable legal preferences may mean little in real world hiring decisions. In the case of Switzerland, one legal option being discussed for so-called “Inländervorrang light”—or priority for native workers—is to demand that Swiss employers prove they could not hire a Swiss worker by first listing any new position with regional employment centers. This might give native workers a slight advantage over foreigners—but probably not much of one the Internet age.

Indeed, the Commission and Swiss authorities would likely view a cosmetic Swiss rule change that satisfies the legal requirements of the 2014 referendum without affecting much else as a successful outcome.

Given the importance of immigration in the UK Brexit referendum, there is absolutely no chance that a similar arrangement would suffice for Brexiteers and large parts of the Conservative Party. As a result, the emerging “Swiss model for free movement of labor with the European Union” is of no relevance to the Brexit negotiations. If anything, an EU Commission that looks to have refused to settle for anything less than the de facto status quo points to an unyielding position on the free movement issue, setting the stage for very difficult Brexit negotiations.