By Michael Shields
Marco Bueter, a gastric surgeon from Germany, knows from his work at University Hospital Zurich and other clinics how much Switzerland depends on foreign doctors
“If you go into the kitchen between operations to have a coffee you always, always, hear someone speaking high German,” said Bueter.
“If the Germans weren’t there, there would be a big, big problem for the Swiss health system.”
Switzerland does not have enough home-grown doctors so nearly a third are European Union citizens even though it is not a member of the 28-country bloc.
Those doctors and other foreigners, many of whom have well-paid jobs, benefit from a 1999 deal allowing workers to move freely between the EU and Switzerland. Now, some Swiss say so many foreigners have arrived that locals are losing out on good employment and a quality of life.
Such resentment echoes around Europe and is playing out in domestic politics from Austria to Britain. It has helped a populist Italian coalition gain power, imperilled German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government and contributed to Britain’s decision to leave the EU.
In Switzerland it has helped to make the anti-immigrant, anti-EU Swiss People’s Party the largest in parliament and driven the political discourse to the right, just as Switzerland enters a crucial phase in negotiations over its future ties with the EU.
On Wednesday the Swiss cabinet starts considering whether to push on with talks on a new treaty that could reset business and diplomatic rules for decades.
Brussels says Switzerland must replace more than 100 separate accords with a treaty. If the talks, which have dragged on for over four years, produce any deal, it would face a Swiss referendum.
Voters would chose whether to back a treaty strengthening business links with the EU but embracing the free movement of people. A rejection would boost Swiss sovereignty and its ability to keep out foreigners but would also risk diplomatic isolation and economic damage.
A similar debate can be heard in Britain as it tries to negotiate the parameters of its EU departure. Swiss politicians are watching those discussions closely.
TIME RUNNING OUT
Net EU immigration has slowed slightly in the last four years as other economies picked up, but at the end of 2017 just over 2 million foreigners were living in Switzerland. That is a quarter of the population, up from 15 percent in the late 1960s.
Nearly 70 percent are from the EU or Liechtenstein, Norway and Iceland as they also are part of the free movement accord.
Many of them work in highly paid IT, banking and medical jobs. Foreign executives run Swiss companies including drugmaker Roche, food group Nestle and Zurich Insurance.
The Swiss cabinet – made up of three centre-left to centre-right parties and the SVP – will consider whether enough progress has been made to carry on with negotiations or whether they should be postponed.
Switzerland and the European Parliament will also have elections next year so the window for a deal is closing
The EU is Switzerland’s largest export partner and Switzerland is the EU’s third-largest export partner so there would be economic consequences for both sides if no deal is reached and relations become strained.
“It is important for Swiss business to know what will happen with immigration and the pool of labour. For Switzerland, like many other countries, skilled labour will become scarce in the years ahead,” said Joachim Blatter, a political scientist at the University of Lucerne.
A new treaty would provide a new legal basis for cooperation and also set up a more effective platform to settle disputes.
Switzerland wants the treaty to provide a firmer framework for aviation, rail traffic, common standards and processed farm products.
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