Swiss immigration vote shows loss of trust in business elite -minister

FRANKFURT Wed Feb 12, 2014 5:45pm EST

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FRANKFURT Feb 12 (Reuters) - A loss of trust in Switzerland's business and political elite may be one of the reasons the alpine nation voted in favour of putting strict limits on immigration, Swiss Economy Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann said on Wednesday.

Pointing to a "culture of excess", Schneider-Ammann said pursuit of profit sometimes at the expense of the common good had turned off ordinary people from political and business leaders.

Swiss voters on Sunday narrowly backed an initiative "against mass immigration," following a successful campaign by the populist right-wing Swiss People's Party, which blamed an influx of foreigners for higher crime, rising rents and congested streets.

The Swiss government and business lobby groups had urged a vote against the proposal, emphasising that it would make it difficult for businesses to recruit qualified staff on whom the Swiss economy and the banking and pharmaceutical industries depend.

"The Swiss government failed in its dealings with the people to convince them of the merits of the system," Schneider-Ammann told a small gathering organised by the Swiss Consulate in Frankfurt, Germany.

"It's as if our citizens believe that free markets do more damage than good."

In the past, arguments put forward by lobby groups had held greater sway, Schneider-Ammann said.

"There is a break in trust between business, citizens and the political elite," he said.

Although the rational arguments in favour of preserving the free movement of people had failed to trump more emotional and xenophobic sentiments, the Swiss government would continue to lobby for greater openness, he said.

"We are definitely not seeking greater isolation," Schneider-Ammann said.

Swiss citizens may have grown wary of arguments put forward by business lobby groups because they had sometimes failed to prevent some of the excesses in the economy, the minister said.

"The developments in the past 10 to 15 years have been problematic, I'm talking about the culture of excess," Schneider-Ammann said.

"Politics and the economic elite can only be understood and accepted if sufficient attention is paid to the common good," he said, adding "Red lines were crossed for the sake of making a profit."

Sunday's vote forces the Swiss government to reintroduce immigration quotas, putting Switzerland on a collision course with the European Union.

"I'm not happy about the outcome of the vote, the government is not happy. We are not yet able to fully grasp the consequences of the vote," Schneider-Ammann said, referring to the potential damage caused in Switzerland's relations with its trading partners.

Although it is not a member of the EU, Switzerland has had a pact with Brussels to ensure the free movement of citizens to and from the bloc since 2002.

With net immigration running at around 70,000 people per year in a population of around 8 million, the Swiss People's Party tapped into concerns that Swiss culture is being eroded by the influx of foreigners. Almost a quarter of the population already holds a foreign passport. (Reporting by Edward Taylor; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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