10/28/2014 04:34 pm ET Updated Dec 27, 2014

A New Spin on Anti-Immigrant Legislation: Swiss Party Proposes Immigration Cap to Limit Consumption

Co-authored by Alexander Fields

With claims that global population growth and resource overconsumption are exploding, a Swiss-based group known as ECOPOP (Ecologie et Population) seeks to reverse these trends. The self-described non-partisan environmental organization is waging a campaign called "Stop Overpopulation to Secure the Natural Foundations of Life," which would cap Switzerland's annual average population growth from immigration at 0.2% and would dedicate 10% of Switzerland's international development funding to promoting family planning initiatives. Swiss citizens will vote on adding these provisions to their Federal Constitution on November 30. While numerous ecologists and politicians have lent their support to this movement, it seems to be relatively ineffective in moderating resource consumption and overpopulation.

Migrants make up one-fourth of Switzerland's population, but Switzerland has recently taken a reactionary stance against immigration. In February of this year, 50.3% of Swiss voters backed a referendum which brought back quotas for immigration from countries in the European Union. Switzerland also raised eyebrows when the entire nation banned the building of minarets (the prayer towers of mosques) in 2009 and when the canton of Ticino banned full-face veils in 2013.

Still, Switzerland is not the only country in Europe to pass restrictive legislation deemed xenophobic. In early October, a woman was asked to leave the Paris Opera for violating the 2010 law which prohibits wearing face-covering veils (and other ostentatious religious symbols) in public. This prompted the French Ministry of Culture to immediately issue a reminder of the provisions of this controversial law. In 2011, Belgium became the second country in the European Nation to enforce a ban on full veils. Flags also went up in France when the far-right National Front won control of 15 municipalities and won 4.1 million votes, or 26% percent support, in the 2014 European Parliament elections. Other "euro-skeptic" and anti-immigration parties also garnered strong support for these elections, such as the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and Austria's Freedom Party.

Most striking is that there are no associated environmental policies in the ECOPOP proposal to discourage resource consumption. The group only assumes that increased birth control and immigration restrictions will directly result in lower resource use but does not account for additional causal factors. ECOPOP even concedes that the proposal would not have much of a direct impact beyond Switzerland and that other areas of the world would still face major population and resource challenges. The initiative may try to increase Switzerland's contributions to global birth control initiatives, but this would require more robust international cooperation to be truly successful. However, there is no evidence that Switzerland championing this approach would catalyze other countries to act.

Proponents of ECOPOP argue that their initiative is essential to reducing environmental strains in Switzerland caused by spikes in population growth due to immigration. They argue that by reducing the number of people entering Switzerland, there would be less people around to consume scarce resources. However, this will not necessarily be the case. New immigrants to Switzerland will not be responsible for consuming nearly as many resources as major domestic corporations, energy producers, and transportation networks. According to the European Environment Agency's 2011 Profile of Switzerland, 60% of the overall environmental impact from Swiss consumption occurs abroad by importing goods and services. Additionally, Switzerland already has a relatively low resource use per capita compared to other European countries. The report notes that Switzerland has the fourth-lowest resource consumption relative to the E.U. countries at about 11 tons of domestic material consumption (DMC) per capita, compared to the overall EU27 average of about 17 tons of DMC per capita.

ECOPOP's initiative is an immigration initiative, not an environmental one. Through environmentally-oriented rhetoric like the slogan "Stop overpopulation- safeguard our natural resources," ECOPOP does a good job of diverting attention away from the main issue of immigration. With rising concerns about human-induced climate change and the future of our planet, such a slogan is especially tempting. In addition to emotional appeals, ECOPOP thrives by appealing to a collective sense of duty to reduce the ecological footprint and to protect the planet. The leading member of the campaign committee, Alec Gagneux, "accuses the industrialized world of blatant selfishness, showing a 'lack of empathy with the people in the developing countries.'"

Despite attracting the necessary 100,000 votes to reach a national vote for a constitutional amendment in Switzerland, ECOPOP's proposal has encountered significant opposition from nearly all major political parties, unions, and charities. The Swiss government has publicly criticized the bill for being highly controversial and harmful to Switzerland's national interest by restricting immigration flows. It has warned that the bill would hurt Switzerland's relations with the E.U., which have already been tenuous because of other anti-immigration bills proposed this year.

Though not part of the E.U., Switzerland maintains strong ties to the European bloc. Various bilateral agreements between Switzerland and the E.U. govern free movement, free trade, environmental regulations, aerial and terrestrial transport, and security. With the approval of the February referendum, Switzerland violated the free movement agreement. The bilateral accords, which were negotiated in 1999 and went into effect in 2002, contain a "guillotine clause," which means that if one clause is revoked by one of the parties, the other can declare the entire package null and void. The ECOPOP initiative, coupled with already increasingly restrictive legislation, may isolate the Swiss from the E.U., which would have serious implications beyond immigration.

The Swiss Business Council, which is the country's main business lobby, has also denounced ECOPOP's measure as potentially devastating to Switzerland's economic growth. Retaliation by the European Union, Switzerland's primary trading partner, could lead to a deterioration of their trade relations, which would significantly reduce Swiss exports and end up costing jobs. The uncertainty surrounding Swiss policies has already scared some businesses away. Stephan Rawyler, mayor of Neuhausen, mentions that one multinational company has canceled to expand in Switzerland and instead return to Ireland. Jacqueline Fehr, a representative in the lower house of Parliament, also regrets the lack of stability for the business community. She imagines outsiders will wonder, "What will be the next crazy decision coming out of Switzerland?" As an Economist article explains, "business leaders were despondent" over the uncertainty the February vote created "for their prospects and profit margins." Finally, both chief economist Rudolf Minsch and Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga have opposed further restrictions on immigration, arguing that Switzerland's aging society needs immigrants who want to work.

While there are many available strategies to prevent overconsumption and high birth rates, the ECOPOP proposal will not be successful in achieving this. Rather, it only serves as a guise for xenophobic immigration restrictions that will divide Switzerland socially and hurt it economically.