The Swiss Referendum: Lessons From the Past for a Better Future

The decision of Swiss voters to disengage from the EU and the speculations of foreign observers about the reasons throw into relief mutual misunderstandings which have deep roots in history. By Jasper Heinzen

The Swiss Parliament building

Nothing illustrates the problems of communication that plague European political integration better than the aftermath of the Swiss referendum on immigration. On 9 February, a narrow 50.3 percent electoral majority voted for a constitutional amendment sponsored by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) to limit foreign migration. The objective was to stop the multi-ethnic Alpine nation from dissolving ‚like a piece of sugar in tea’, as one of the party’s chief spokesmen, Christoph Mörgeli, explained after the election. The boldness with which Swiss voters defied the stipulations of the Schengen Agreement and over one hundred bilateral treaties with the EU has elicited broad yet strong reactions across the continent. Anti-Europeanists, including UKIP’s Nigel Farrage, are capitalising on European citizens’ growing disenchantment with EU crisis management by hailing the Swiss referendum as a milestone on the path to the reclamation of national sovereignty from the clutches of wrong-headed Euro bureaucrats, whereas the European Commission – fearing a surge of popular support for nationalist parties in the upcoming EU elections – condemns Switzerland for undermining two of the EU’s major achievements, the free movement of labour and people. With lingering memories of the Swiss ban declared on minarets in 2009, foreign admirers and detractors alike have therefore been quick to conclude that the Eidgenossen are determined to seal themselves off from the rest of Europe.

However, the decision of Swiss voters to disengage from the EU and the speculations of foreign observers about the reasons throw into relief mutual misunderstandings which have deep roots in history. As the EU enlarges, diplomats insist that member states must follow uniform rules and cannot demand special treatment at every turn. The former German ambassador at Berne, for one, made it clear in a recent Neue Zürcher Zeitung editorial that Switzerland had been lucky to secure as many concessions as she did through bilateral treaties since turning down EC membership in 1992. For the embattled stalwarts of the EU it makes sense to avoid any semblance of playing favourites, but such an approach also conveniently sidelines the historical responsibility of European governments for the emergence of Swiss particularism. For much of their history Switzerland’s federated cantons alternately fought against or succumbed to the hegemony of powerful neighbours. Breaking the pattern to prevent each other from gaining control of the geostrategically significant western Alps, the great powers agreed at the Congress of Vienna to impose permanent neutrality on the Swiss Confederation. Although invasion scares flared up for brief moments in 1847, 1857, 1870/71 and the two world wars, Swiss neutrality has never been violated, and the country’s mandate to eschew entanglement in European affairs is still in force.

This pride in self-reliance and inherited traditions pervades many domains of Swiss national culture, but perhaps none more than the armed forces of 180,000 men and women. The latter continue to remain outside NATO, and proposals to reduce the army to a size more befitting a country with merely 8 million inhabitants (of whom over 20 percent are foreigners) have so far been met with the hostile reply from the Swiss Union of Officers and other lobby groups that any deviation from self-reliance in defence matters would be ‘dangerous and irresponsible towards future generations’. At the same time it is important to acknowledge that the instinct to thwart foreign ‘invasions’ stems from a genuine wish to make Switzerland’s time-honoured system of direct democracy a role model for Europe. However damaging the referendum may have been to bilateral relations, its timing so close to the EU parliamentary elections and the selection of a new Commission president shows how much Swiss and European politics do in fact converge. This is of course not to say that the impasse since the referendum is simply the result of Brussels’ misinterpreting the good intentions of the SVP. On the contrary, the referendum passed because populist opinion-makers quite deliberately cast doubt on the long-term viability of the EU by suggesting that the Swiss Willensnation has been the master of its own destiny since the Rütli Oath of 1291, while the supra-national EU has yet to demonstrate whether it will stand the test of time. This emotionally compelling dichotomy neither admits nor cares for the fact that governance based on diffused sovereignty long predates the arrival of the first Eidgenossen. Secondly, if the fate of the Holy Roman Empire and the German Confederation teaches anything, it is that the collapse of composite entities is often not the product of too much centralisation but rather of flawed power-sharing. Thirdly, the modern Swiss nation-state is not an advertisement against but actually for the objectives of European integration: without the introduction of a beefed-up federal constitution in 1848 guaranteeing freedom of movement, amongst other reforms, the Swiss people would have continued to endure the deleterious effects of infighting and civil war.

The path ahead of the EU is without question a steep one, and the Swiss referendum certainly does not make the journey any easier. Nevertheless, the re-negotiation of the bilateral treaties in the coming three years may still turn out to be a blessing in disguise because both parties will get the chance to air their differences and to explain their respective concerns. In doing so, politicians must convince each other as well as the citizens who elect them and pass referenda. The importance of the task serves as encouragement to think about ways in which the lessons of the past can be applied to promote flexibility and a willingness to reach compromise in bilateral talks.

Image: “Swiss Parliament” courtesy to Chris Nicholson via Creative Commons 2.0 share alike.

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