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What’s behind an anti-immigrant tide rising in Europe

February 12, 2014 at 6:46 PM EST
The European Union is built on the idea of free movement of people and capital, but some factions wish to curb immigration and control their sovereign identity. Judy Woodruff talks to Heather Conley with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Charles Kupchan of Georgetown University about the rising influence of anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: So what is the significance of the recent vote in Switzerland?

For that, we turn to Heather Conley. She’s director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. And Charles Kupchan, he’s a professor of international relations at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He also served on the National Security Council staff during the Clinton administration.

Welcome back to the NewsHour to you both.

Heather Conley, to you first. Just tell us in brief, what were these — what were Swiss voters asked to vote on? What was this referendum?

HEATHER CONLEY, Center for Strategic and International Studies: In a nutshell, they were asked to curb or seek quotas for immigration.

Switzerland, population of eight million, has approximately a foreign-born population that represents 23 percent of the Swiss population. This is something that the Swiss People’s Party, a far-right political party in Switzerland, had been pushing. And Switzerland has a form of very direct representation, direct democracy. And they put this issue to a referendum: Do you want to see limits to the immigration levels that enter Switzerland?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Charles Kupchan, what’s your best understanding of why the public voted as it did? It was a narrow win, as we said, just over 50 percent.

CHARLES KUPCHAN, Georgetown University: I think there are two basic things going on.

One is anti-immigration sentiment that we see all over Europe and we see in the United States, people living next door who were not born here, who may be vying for jobs, who may not look like you. And the second is what I would call something akin to the libertarian sentiment in the United States, sovereignty, taking back the rights of the nation from globalization, from European integration. Our borders are being penetrated. We have lost a certain amount of control over our destiny.

Those two things are running together, the anti-immigrant and the sovereignty. And that is why this is somewhat threatening to Europe, because it has an anti-E.U. tinge to it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Heather Conley, what would you add to that about why people ultimately voted, why over 50 percent voted as they did?

HEATHER CONLEY: Yes, it was — it was a squeaker. The government, the business community, the important Swiss financial community were all saying, don’t vote, don’t vote this way.

And yet the people said, you know, we are very anxious. We’re frightened by this immigration. We’re concerned about it eroding into our jobs, our economy. We’re uncomfortable.

In 2009, there was a referendum that banned construction of minarets. So, this is been a steady issue in Switzerland, but it really came to a head with this referendum. And, to Charles’ point, this is a critical pillar of European integration. There are four pillars, the free movement of people, of capital, of goods and services.

Now, Switzerland is not a member of the European Union, but they are a member of the European free trade area. This is going to be a major obstacle with this referendum. So, we will see how the European Union officials react.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why an — why an obstacle?

CHARLES KUPCHAN: Because the Swiss have negotiated these agreements with the E.U., even though they’re not a member.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

CHARLES KUPCHAN: And the E.U. is going to say, you don’t want free movement of goods, we’re not going to let you — free movement of people — we’re not going to let you have goods, not going to let you have access to our market.

And then it sort of spills over. And the British are going to say, well, if the Swiss are going to back out on this, we want to renegotiate. And then you get a fragmentation of the European Union, the solidarity, the open borders, and who knows where it goes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Charles Kupchan, can you tease out how much of this is economic and some of the things that you described a moment ago, and how much of it is related to the ethnic identity of immigrants, the religious identity of these immigrants?

CHARLES KUPCHAN: Well, it’s not fundamentally — fundamentally economic. And that’s because Switzerland actually has pretty good numbers. Employment is — unemployment is below 5 percent. The economy is doing well.

Most of the people who are working in Switzerland who are non-Swiss are in banks, in pharmaceuticals. They are not out there competing for service jobs. And, furthermore, the people who voted against immigration come from cantons with few immigrants. They come from small towns and rural areas.

JUDY WOODRUFF: These are the political divisions in the country.

CHARLES KUPCHAN: Yes.

And the urban areas voted against limiting immigrants. And so this is much more of a visceral reaction to what is happening to Swiss nationhood, who are these people, more than it is an economic issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is this something, Heather Conley, something you see growing across Europe or not? Where do you see this headed?

HEATHER CONLEY: It’s growing.

And the timing of this is very interesting. It comes three months before very important European Parliament elections at the end of May. This is the only European Union body that is democratically elected, Pan-European, democratically elected. We know groups, far-right political groups like Front National in France, the United Kingdom Independence Party in the U.K., polls tell us that they are going to do extremely well for these elections.

So what the — what Europeans may be telling the European Union is, we don’t want more Europe. We don’t want the free movement of people, not only immigrants that may be coming from North Africa, from the Middle East, but peoples that are coming from other E.U. member states, like Romania, Bulgaria, the Roma. This is building an enormous case of anxiety, anti-Europeanism, anti-immigrant. And it can turn violent, like it has in Greece.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, Charles Kupchan, what do you see the consequences of this being? You mentioned the economic trade discussion going on, but what about for people in Europe?

CHARLES KUPCHAN: You know, the good news is that in most countries in Europe, center-left and center-right are still pro-immigration and pro-Europe, pro-integration.

But these smaller parties on the left and right are getting greater and greater market share. And as Heather was just saying, they could get up to 25 percent of the seats in the European Parliament. If that happens and this backlash continues, then the European project is called into question.

It may stumble. We may be at the high watermark of an integrated Europe.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I’m so glad the two of you are here to talk with us about it. Charles Kupchan and Heather Conley, thank you.

HEATHER CONLEY: Thank you.