BERLIN, Nov. 30 (UPI) -- Switzerland has taken a step to the right with its vote to automatically expel foreigners convicted of crimes, a decision that could put the Alpine country on a collision course with the European Union.
Launched by the far-right Swiss People's Party, or SVP, the initiative was backed by 53 percent of voters in a referendum Sunday. It forces the Swiss government to expel, without possibility of appeals, convicted foreign criminals -- even those who are born in Switzerland -- after they have served their prison term. Deportations come into effect after serious crimes ranging from murder and rape to armed robbery as well as lesser crimes, such as abusing Switzerland's welfare system.
The government had tried to counter the SVP with its own, watered-down initiative that would have allowed for cases to be assessed individually, but voters decided to back the harsher version.
Swiss Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga had to admit that a majority of voters "sent a clear signal that they consider foreign criminality to be a serious problem."
Switzerland's mainstream media has lamented the outcome, with the Tages-Anzeiger daily from Geneva saying the country's image of a "cosmopolitan, tolerant, and internationally engaged country has taken a further battering."
The vote also drew international condemnation and could strain Switzerland's ties with the EU.
Belgian newspaper Le Soir called the decision a slap in the face of the EU, as it is "absolutely incompatible with the bilateral accord of free movement of people which links Switzerland to EU."
Human-rights groups have warned that Swiss authorities could deport foreigners even if they face torture in their home countries -- a breach of the U.N. Convention Against Torture, signed by Switzerland.
The EU hasn't directly commented on the Swiss vote but said in a statement it expects Switzerland to honor its agreements with the EU.
Without mentioning Switzerland, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso Monday told France 1 radio he is seeing in Europe "societies that have a great tradition of openness and democracy where a nationalist, chauvinist, xenophobic, sometimes even a very, very aggressive populism surge is swelling."
"Populism is the manipulation of fears with irrational arguments, but it works sometimes," he added.
The Swiss vote highlights the tensions across Europe with foreign immigrants arriving from Africa and the Middle East. France recently made it easier to deport foreign criminals and has already deported thousands of Roma living in the country illegally.
New anti-immigrant movements in Scandinavia, Austria and the Netherlands, where anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders has a hand in government, have garnered substantial voter support.
In Switzerland, where more than a fifth of the 7.8 million inhabitants are foreigners, the far-right SVP has long played on fears of surging crime rates, the loss of traditional Swiss culture and the abuse of the generous welfare system by immigrants to raise support for its xenophobic initiatives.
Sparking criticism from human-rights groups and the international community, the SVP had launched posters showing a white sheep kicking a black sheep off the map of Switzerland to raise support for the deportation initiative. Last year the party succeeded in banning the construction of minarets on mosques in the country.
The SVP's latest victory "will strengthen the party in its determination to launch more such initiatives," Georg Lutz, a political scientist at the University of Lausanne, Tuesday told United Press International in a telephone interview. "The SVP gladly accepts that it often goes against international law. It's their strategy of positioning themselves as raising important issues that other parties refuse to tackle."
The Swiss government now faces the daunting task of preparing a bill that reflects the result of the vote while respecting international human rights and the country's agreements with the EU. It has five years to draft new legislation and put it in place, and has vowed to start working before Christmas.
However, observers say little constructive is poised to happen over the course of next year, when parties are campaigning for the 2011 general elections.
"The government will try to minimize the international damage when drafting the legislation, and the SVP will try to cultivate more conflicts to further its goals," Lutz said. "This will involve a lot of political brokering, and it will take some time."