A daily bulletin of news & opinion

4 March 2014

It’s been three weeks since the fateful Swiss vote in favour of curbing “mass immigration” – time to assess the damage done and think about where the country might be going.

Growing up in a direct democracy, I got used to voting on a regular basis and very often being disappointed with the outcome – Switzerland was, and still is, a very conservative country. Of course, one could say, this “Yes” on 9 February was the people’s will – accept it, move on. But this one hurts particularly badly because no matter how you look at it, with a “Yes” to restricting the freedom of movement of people, Switzerland jeopardises its bilateral treaties with the EU and therefore its access to the EU market.

I will refrain from trying to explain the Swiss psyche. What I will say is that since 2007, 80,000 people have moved to Switzerland every year. This is a rather large number considering the size of the country. The result can be described as a lingering feeling of uneasiness shared by 50.3 per cent of voters. None of the political parties apart from the right-wing SVP picked up on the severity of these sentiments and this most populist of recent initiatives is the result.

Where do we go from here? Clearly something is not quite right but who can fix it? I see this going two ways.

20 years ago, Switzerland voted against joining the European Economic Area – this resulted in seven years of economic stagnation, political isolation and even the grounding of Swissair. If worst comes to worst today, Switzerland will find itself in a similar situation again. This all depends on just how fed up the EU is with Switzerland’s special requests and how much of an example it wants to set for other countries wanting to restrict EU regulations. As a little taster, last week Switzerland was excluded from the Erasmus student-exchange programme and all other dossiers are on hold until further notice.

But there is a more optimistic scenario: after a phase of insecurity on how to implement its new anti-immigration initiative, Switzerland’s ongoing identity crisis might be overcome when politicians manage to remember the country’s core strengths such as security of law and its abilities as a financial and political hub. There is hope that the latter result might shake up the 50 per cent of the country’s population who didn’t go to the ballot box, and also help further motivate the 49.7 per cent of voters who voted “No” into more activism that promotes an open, integrated and competitive Switzerland.

In an ideal world we would have a charismatic political figure who could push these ideas forward. But since we have a consensus democracy, I don’t know where to look for him or her – it would mean rethinking the concept of direct democracy. I don’t think Switzerland will ever abandon this highly valued cornerstone of its political system but at least the number of signatures required to put an initiative to vote needs to be adjusted. It currently sits at 100,000, this just seems terribly outdated – considering the number has been set in stone since 1891 and the population has more than doubled since then.

So where do we go from here? I am not sure. But I do hope that creative minds will be inspired by the numerous problems at hand.

Isabel Käser is a researcher for Monocle 24.


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