An electoral poster for the 'Stop Mass Immigration' referendum by the right-wing populist Swiss People's Party. Photographer: Michael Buholzer/AFP/Getty Images
An electoral poster for the 'Stop Mass Immigration' referendum by the right-wing populist Swiss People's Party. Photographer: Michael Buholzer/AFP/Getty Images

The Swiss have voted to impose quotas on immigration, a decision that will reverberate across Europe -- and should sound especially loud in Brussels.

One consequence of the vote will be to encourage the anti-immigrant parties of various countries that have in recent years thrived on the economic crisis. At the same time, the vote should serve as a warning to Europe's political leaders that they need to do a far better job making the case for the free movement of labor, which is facilitated by the laws enabling European Union citizens to live and work anywhere in the bloc.

The Swiss, of course, aren't part of the EU. But in 2002, they signed a package of agreements to integrate their economy more tightly with the EU's single market, a deal that included free movement of people. On Sunday, 50.3 percent of Swiss voters said that this was a mistake.

Switzerland's government now needs to decide what kind of quotas to impose on immigration from the EU, and the European Commission needs to walk a fine line in its response. It must respect the Swiss vote and avoid punitive measures that would damage both economies. At the same time, it must make clear that a country that has signed a treaty can't just decide on its own which parts of the agreement to honor.

Quite a few Europeans have been taking advantage of the right to move to wealthy, stable Switzerland. About 64,000 people migrated there from the EU each year over the last decade, 69 percent of them highly skilled. About a quarter of the country's population of 8 million is foreign-born, about four times the average proportion for the EU.

The Swiss economy has attracted so many immigrants because it depends on them -- and not just to clean hotel rooms and wait tables in ski resorts. Unemployment is at a capacity-constraining 3 percent, and the country's large multinational corporations need more highly skilled employees than they can get from the graduating classes of Swiss universities. About 45 percent of employees in the country's pharmaceuticals and biotech sector are foreign-born, enabling huge companies to be based in Switzerland and create jobs there.

Even so, many voters were convinced by the arguments of the conservative Swiss People's Party that the country is full -- its schools, health-care and transportation systems overburdened, its jobs and salary levels under threat. Many of these arguments, made in the U.K. and elsewhere in Europe, are ill-founded, which may help to explain why the most urbanized Swiss cantons with the most immigrants tended to vote against imposing quotas, even though they should have felt these pressures most.

There are at least two lessons here for Europe's leaders -- at the EU headquarters in Brussels and across the continent.

The first is that many ordinary Europeans feel they are no longer listened to, especially in Brussels. The European project may be one of the modern world's great achievements, but it is an unapologetically elite one. In upcoming elections to the European Parliament, isolationist parties such as the U.K. Independence Party in Britain and Marine Le Pen's National Front in France are expected to benefit from this anti-elitism. The EU can address some of this anger by, for example, allowing member states to delay the provision of welfare to new immigrants, as both the U.K. and Germany are asking.

The second lesson is that the way to counter anti-immigrant rhetoric is to not join it. In competing to be toughest on immigration, too many European politicians have stopped explaining the many benefits of free movement or acknowledging its dislocations.

Immigrants bring skills, youth and a work ethic that Europe's aging economies need more than most. The case for Europe's immigration system remains strong -- and Europe's leaders need to be more candid and aggressive about making it.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.