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Cultural Preservation By Way of Immigration Limitation—Has Switzerland Gone Too Far?

February 18, 2014

A little more than a week ago, Switzerland approved referendums designed to restrict the number of foreigners allowed to live and work within its borders, a move that has garnered the attention of not only Swiss residents but the continent of Europe as a whole. The necessity of such measures, as explained by the rightist Swiss People’s Party under the leadership of Christoph Blocher, is to protect Swiss sovereignty, to conserve Switzerland’s economic condition and to preserve Swiss cultural heritage. Switzerland has one of the highest proportions of foreigners in Europe, accounting for about 27 percent of the country’s population of approximately eight million. As a non-member of the EU, Blocher asserts, Switzerland has an at-will right to restrict the free movement of persons, and as proven through the outcome of the recent vote, the majority of Swiss voters agree.  The details of the initiative remain to be seen, as Bern must still decide on the quota of allowable immigrants inclusively along with potential limits on specific employment sectors, but the power to modify Switzerland’s current free movement agreement with the EU has now been given to the Swiss National Council. By mid-year, according to Blocher, the immigration restriction plan should be in its initial stages.

The Swiss initiative, with its concept of citizenship rights vs. foreigner privileges, comes at a time of enhanced universal anxiety. Weary and apprehensive from a prolonged global recession, countries across the European stage are suffering, whether through increased unemployment numbers or enlarged social welfare rolls, and the notions surrounding immigration have been brought to the forefront of everyone’s mind. Can the more prosperous countries handle the influx of workers from economically weaker countries? What types of social benefits should a government give a foreign worker, especially one who has not worked within its borders for long? Should it be required to do anything for its foreign workers at all?

Considering their political platforms, it is no surprise that right-wing populist politicians such as Heinz-Christian Strache from the FPÖ in Austria, Geert Wilders from Holland and Marine Le Pen from the Front National in France, quickly congratulated the Swiss, all the while discussing immigration quotas for their own countries. But a disquieting number of moderate politicians, such as former French Prime Minister François Fillon, seem to be moving towards a political platform based partly upon immigration restriction, cloaked under the umbrella of economic and cultural preservation. Clearly, this shows a trend towards some type of austerity, a concept that has been encouraged and lauded since the onset of the financial recession.  But considering the far-reaching implications of prospectively strained political relationships and the socialized beliefs of moral obligations towards the less fortunate, is it one whose intentions should be extolled?

Culture is, according to Merriam-Webster, the “beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place or time”. Sounds simple, right? A specific group, sharing locality or temporality, forging their collective goals and principles, reveling in their uniqueness, celebrating the differences that set them apart from other social orders…Wait a minute. This interpretation of distinction is starting to sound like a little like premeditated exclusion, even though the best intentions were meant. And with the passing of Switzerland’s recent immigration restrictions, one can’t help but wonder—where should the line be drawn with regard to cultural preservation? What is the criterion for deciding which culture qualifies for conservancy? And even more importantly, considering the potential of profoundly lasting global repercussions, should ostracism even be tolerated at all?     Switzerland Immigration Initiative

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