Swiss “Deportation Referendum” for Foreigners Convicted of Crimes Fuels Populist Surge in Europe     Print Email

In its latest controversial referendum, Swiss voters have approved a measure put forward by a far rightwing political party to automatically deport foreigners convicted of crimes ranging from murder to welfare fraud.

Under the terms of the new law, approved by 52.9 percent of voters in a national ballot at the end of November, the Deportation Initiative allows local judges to automatically deport persons of foreign origin – regardless of whether or not they were born in Switzerland – if they are convicted of felonies (such as drug trafficking) or even misdemeanors (such as fraudulently accepting unemployment benefits).

These provisions violate some treaties that Switzerland has signed, including a ban against sending people back to countries that practice torture, according to Amnesty International. Some Swiss accords with the EU may also be violated by the measure, but so far there has not been any official appeal from Brussels.

The Swiss measure has parallels with a recent move in France to “denaturalize” gypsies and other immigrants who are convicted of crimes affecting public order. As analyzed by the Christian Science Monitor newspaper, the Swiss move reflects a wider pattern in which “the European far right has been changing the political landscape with a strategy that effectively leaps over old taboos against singling out foreigners – and portrays political elites as overly tolerant and out-of-touch.”

swiss1In the Swiss referendum, the proposed measure appealed to a public feeling of insecurity, the loss of traditional Swiss culture, and the payout of generous welfare benefits to immigrants. Swiss Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said that the "majority of the voters have sent a clear signal that they consider foreign criminality to be a serious problem."

The initiative, to be included in the Swiss Constitution, was proposed by Switzerland’s far-right populist party, the Democratic Union of the Centre (UDC), also known as the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), who was behind the 2009 ban on the building of minarets. While this initiative had an anti-Islamic thrust, the party has consistently urged a tougher overall stance against immigration to Switzerland.

 During the 2007 election, in which the party’s controversial campaign posters depicted a white sheep kicking a black sheep off of a flag of Switzerland, the UDC won 29 percent of the popular vote, more than any other Swiss political party in history.

 swiss2The UDC’s campaign continues to promote the theme that immigration is linked to criminality, raising concerns across Europe. France and Italy have already considered similar deportation laws against foreign-born criminals. Switzerland’s general election next year will be especially telling as to the extent of voter support for the UDC and their anti-immigrant policies.

 In recent years, far-right, anti-immigration parties have continued to gain strength throughout Europe. Polls have indicated an increasingly conservative shift in general public opinion and magnified frustrations with immigrant populations. New anti-immigrant “movements” in the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, and Sweden, among others, have already made substantial inroads.

 EU Commission president José Manuel Barroso took note of a sour mood in Europe regarding minorities telling French1 radio that, "I see societies that have a great tradition of openness and democracy where a nationalist, chauvinist, xenophobic, sometimes even a very, very aggressive populism surge is swelling…. Populism is the manipulation of fears with irrational arguments, but it works sometimes."

 Jacques Delors, the former president of the European Commission, warned this week that “Europe is letting go [of its values] under the impact of nauseous waves of populism and nationalism.” Speaking in an interview with Le Monde newspaper in Paris, the French statesman said that unless European governments react more vigorously against these trends during the economic crisis, the EU will go into a decline that damages all its member states – including even the current “star” of the union, Germany.


Julianna Knapp is an intern at European Affairs