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Swiss Referendum Considers Canceling Freedom Of Movement With EU

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

First there was Brexit, and now there's Swixit (ph), if I can call it that. Switzerland is not a member of the European Union, but some Swiss politicians want to cut at least one of the treaties it has with Brussels, specifically one relating to freedom of movement. They're going to hold a referendum on the idea later this month. But as Rebecca Rosman reports, if they pass this measure, the Swiss could lose out on a lot of other deals with the EU as well.

REBECCA ROSMAN, BYLINE: Switzerland's ruling far-right party, the SVP, says Brexit was an inspiration for the coming referendum, which will ask Swiss citizens if they want to end free movement with the EU.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARCO CHIESA: (Non-English language spoken).

ROSMAN: Marco Chiesa, the head of the SVP, told Swiss television the U.K. left the EU for one main reason - too much immigration. And he says Switzerland is fed up, too. While Switzerland has never been an official EU member, a 2002 agreement made it easier for EU citizens to travel and work in Switzerland and vice versa. Today, Switzerland is home to about 2 million immigrants. Two-thirds come from the EU. But even though the far-right is framing this vote around immigration, the stakes for Switzerland could be much higher than that.

STEFANIE WALTER: I mean, it would really shatter Swiss-EU relations.

ROSMAN: Stefanie Walter teaches political science at the University of Zurich. She explains the free movement agreement is tied to six other bilateral treaties on things like trade and aviation. They're all bound to what's called a guillotine clause. If you cancel one treaty, you cancel all of them. The SVP party hopes it can convince the EU to make some sort of compromise, but Walter says that's wishful thinking.

WALTER: The EU, on the other hand, thinks that Switzerland already has got one of the best deals of all third-party third countries and is not really willing to engage in a lot of compromises, especially not in the context of Brexit, where every move is being very closely watched in the U.K.

ROSMAN: Polling suggests that around 60% of voters are against the referendum, and the pandemic might be the deciding factor. Without immigrants, Switzerland would face a significant shortage of health care workers. Take Geneva's University Hospital System, one of the country's largest. More than half the staff are what's called frontalier, people who live in the EU but cross the border every day to work in Switzerland.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHIESA: (Non-English language spoken).

ROSMAN: When asked about that prospect, SVP leader Marco Chiesa said he was scared to see how dependent Switzerland had become on EU workers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHIESA: (Non-English language spoken).

ROSMAN: "The crisis has shown that," he said, "and that's exactly why it's time we become more autonomous and independent." The Swiss will go to the polls on September 27. For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Rosman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.