Switzerland vs EU: New leader pushes to end of freedom of movement in crunch referendum

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Mr Chiesa, 45, from the Italian-speaking region of Ticino was elected as leader of the right-wing party yesterday. He was surprisingly nominated last month after Switzerland’s biggest party tried for months to find a suitable successor to outgoing president Albert Roesti, who last year announced he was stepping down after four years at the helm.

Top of Mr Chiesa’s agenda will likely be the party’s campaign in a September 27 referendum on ending free movement of people with the European Union.

The referendum, to be held on September 27, will ask people whether or not the country should pull the plug a deal between Switzerland, which is not a member of the bloc, and the EU guaranteeing free movement between the two.

Under the plan, a “no” vote would see the EU’s freedom of movement accord either renegotiated with Brussels within the next 12 months or scrapped altogether.

Opinion polls suggest a majority are in favour of keeping free movement, with Swiss broadcaster SRG publishing a poll on Thursday suggesting 61 percent would vote against the proposal, with 35 percent in favour.

However, if the vote goes the other way bilateral trade agreements between Switzerland and the EU could be at risk.

After his victory, Mr Chiesa said: “I don’t want to have to watch how Swiss families suffer from the burden of millions of immigrants from the European Union.

“We are not going to change our program to sound more sympathetic.

“When it comes to immigration, cross-border workers, asylum and Europe, the Ticino citizen is exactly on the same line as the party strategist.”

Father of two Mr Chiesa, who is fluent in Italian and French, and who can also speak German, has been the party’s vice-president since 2018.

A frequent critic of immigration, he has blamed it for higher housing costs, unfair competition for workers, and even traffic jams.

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His election was confirmed at a party meeting in Brugg Windisch, west of Zurich.

He was the only candidate standing for election, a lack of choice which prompted criticism from some delegates present.

The SVP used to dominate Switzerland’s political debates with frequent inflammatory attacks on immigrants and the European Union.

However, its fortunes dipped under Mr Roesti, who confirmed his decision to resign last year after the party’s lacklustre showing in parliamentary elections.

The SVP currently has six seats out of 46 in the Council of States, Switzerland’s upper legislature, and 53 seats out of 200 in lower house, the National Council.

Officially Switzerland is known as the Swiss Confederation, and as such its leadership structure differs from that of many countries in the West.

Simonetta Sommaruga, a member of the Social Democratic Party, is the Confederation’s current President, and head of the Federal Council.

As such, she is not Switzerland’s official head of state, because the entire Federal Council performs that function.

Nevertheless, Ms Sommaruga represents the country on the international stage.

Speaking last week, justice minister Karin Keller-Sutter, a member of the centrist FDP party, urged a “no” vote in next month’s referendum.

She claimed: “A ‘yes’ to the initiative is even worse than Brexit.”

The current arrangements did not contain an exit clause, she warned, adding: “The EU is not obliged to speak to us.”

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