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December 19, 2014
Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Anti-immigrant parties take heart in referendum

By James G. Neuger
Bloomberg News (*)
BRUSSELS — Opponents of the European Union, the euro and immigration claimed fresh momentum in the campaign for EU-wide elections after Switzerland voted to impose quotas on foreigners.

Anti-immigration politicians including France’s Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders of the Netherlands said that while Switzerland is outside the EU, Sunday's Swiss vote against open borders will resonate inside it.

“You can decide who comes into your apartment,” Le Pen said on Europe 1 radio yesterday. “The country is our house. We the people have the right to decide who comes in.”

While Swiss government has until 2017 to decide how to implement the will of its people, anti-establishment parties in the rest of Europe are looking for an immediate tailwind. They are seeking to parlay the euro crisis and rampant unemployment into a breakthrough in elections for the European Parliament, to be held in all 28 EU countries in May.

Amid varying national backdrops, parties like Le Pen’s National Front feed on economic lethargy, resentments against mostly Muslim immigration and the perception that European authorities in Brussels are to blame.

Some 23 percent of the French would vote for the National Front in the European Parliament election, beating other French parties, according to an Ifop poll last month published by Le Journal du Dimanche.

“Fantastic,” tweeted Wilders, head of the Dutch Freedom Party, part of an informal alliance with Le Pen. “What the Swiss can do, we can do too: cut immigration and leave the EU.”

To be sure, the Swiss margin —by 50.3 percent, or 19,000 votes out of 2.9 million cast — fell short of a mandate on the Bern government to rebuild walls to workers from the EU that were taken down by treaties signed in 1999.

The Swiss government has three years to enact immigration quotas, as long as the limits serve the country’s economic interest. Swiss business groups pointed out that the government has wide discretion to soften the impact of the curbs.

The anti-immigration Freedom Party in neighbouring Austria, already buoyed by its best performance since 1999 in September’s national election, sought to capitalize on the message sent from the Swiss side of the Alps.

“Most people in Austria would also favour limits on migration,” party leader Heinz-Christian Strache said in a statement. He blamed mass migration for the “catastrophic” labour market. Austria’s unemployment rate was 4.9 percent in December, the lowest in the EU, according to EU data.

Switzerland’s referendum resonated in Britain, which is in the throes of a public debate over a possible exit from the EU. Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to offer an in-or-out referendum in 2017 if re-elected next year.

The chief proponent of secession, Britain’s Independence Party, said a departure from the EU would grant Britain the same control over its destiny as Swiss voters exercised.

“Were the British people to be given their own referendum on this issue then the result would be the same, but by a landslide,” UKIP leader Nigel Farage said in a statement.

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