Germans in Switzerland uncertain of future | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 10.02.2014
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Germans in Switzerland uncertain of future

German immigrants to Switzerland feel unsettled - but not surprised. The Swiss, they say, are both tolerant and xenophobic. What they can't imagine is how the country will get by with fewer trained workers.

Eberhard Wolff is anything but surprised. The German literary scholar from the Ulm area works in Zurich and has lived in Switzerland for years. He is well aware that the Swiss are of two minds when it comes to foreign residents.

"As a German in Switzerland, you get the feeling you're not really accepted," Wolff told DW. On the other hand, Switzerland is "extremely friendly to foreigners, and has time and again taken in strangers in difficult times."

So there are Swiss who have a reserved, at times even xenophobic, attitude toward foreigners on the one hand, and tolerant Swiss on the other - Wolff's perception mirrors the result of Sunday's referendum. The margin was slim: 50.3 percent voted for limits on EU immigration, and just below 50 percent voted for the free movement of citizens to and from the EU.

Foreign workers indispensable

The vote will have far-reaching consequences for foreigners, including an estimated 300,000 Germans living in Switzerland. Switzerland will reintroduce immigration quotas: In the future, EU citizens may only live and work in Switzerland if they are urgently needed.

Ute Mäster, a German in her mid-50s who has worked as a nurse at Zurich University Hospital for years, has no idea what that actually means on a practical level.

A woman walks next a political poster showinga tree being axed down.

Opponents of the cap on immigration warned of the consequences

"More than 50 percent of the people employed as care providers are foreigners," she says. "An enterprise like Zurich University Hospital wouldn't work without migrants."

Swiss economists come to the same conclusion. "You can't run a hospital in Switzerland without foreign workers," Philipp Mosimann, manager of Bucher equipment manufacturer in Zurich, told DW. The situation is similar in the construction sector, restaurants and the hotel business, the member of the Swiss Employers' Federation says.

At 23 percent, the number of foreigners in Switzerland is relatively high, Mosimann says, adding that those very foreigners are the indispensable motor of Switzerland's economy. "Switzerland is too small to recruit the specialists it needs exclusively in the country."

Higher costs

Moismann suggests the debate earlier this year in Germany about immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania may have tipped the scales for the vote in Switzerland. "The debate in Germany inspired supporters in Switzerland to say, look, the Germans are having this discussion concerning just one-third of the number of migrants we have in Switzerland."

The outcome of the vote is a disaster, Mosimann says.

"Administrative costs will rise because we have to prove we weren't able to find a Swiss for the job, and then we have to find someone abroad," he says. "A bureaucrat in Berne will decide whether we can employ that person."

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Germany expects trouble

Vote reflects growing concern

For Lukas Reimann, who sits in the Swiss national parliament for the far-right Swiss People's Party (SVP), the vote was a tremendous success. About 80,000 foreigners annually have been migrating to Switzerland, the 31-year-old from Wil in the eastern canton of St. Gallen says, adding that the number represents more than can be absorbed by the small Alpine nation with its eight million inhabitants.

The problems in the labor market are huge, he says. "Wages slump as soon as foreign workers work for less, while housing prices skyrocket because not enough apartments are being built to house the people coming into the country." Then, there are traffic problems "when an additional 80,000 people per year are on the roads and in the trains," Reimann says, not to mention a rise in crime rates. "It's a whole array of problems."

Dependent on EU trade

The SVP, which initiated Sunday's referendum, is confident the "array of problems" will decrease after the vote, but others fear the opposite will happen, and the relationship with the EU will become strongly damaged.

The biggest problem is the so-called "guillotine clause," which means if one element in the EU's agreement with Switzerland is changed, everything falls apart, Swiss TV journalist Urs Leuthard warns.

"The big question is whether the EU would really take a chance and overturn the agreements?" Switzerland would face the enormous challenge of having to renegotiate all its trade deals, the journalist says.

For the time being, the consequences of the referendum are not yet foreseeable.

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