This week has given us yet another example of the public wanting to reject the free movement of peoples, and the politicians wanting instead to reject the public. Friday’s example occurred in the Alpine arcadia of Switzerland.
It is a curious fact, but Switzerland’s Head of State is not an individual, but a collective: the Swiss Federal Council. The Federal Council is a 7-member body, which serves as the executive branch of the Swiss constitution. Each Councillor holds an Office of State, such as Finance, Justice, or Foreign Affairs, and are members of separate political parties. The number of Councillors a party ‘gets’ is proportionate to the support their party has in the country.
I mention this titbit, as it is indicative of Switzerland’s political inheritance. The modern Swiss state is a highly decentralised confederal republic. Much of their politics occurs, not at the national level, but within the local cantons.
Government is restrained by strong checks and balances; but they are also forced to act in accordance with their constituents’ wishes, as Switzerland has a long history of referenda, which can be initiated by the populace on issues which concern them.
There has been a baker’s dozen this year alone, with several attracting enviable turnouts of 60+%, and ranging from issues such as the automatic expulsion of foreign criminals (rejected) and the building of a new road tunnel to allow reconstruction of the current one (approved). The Swiss are clearly a politically engaged and informed people.
It is pretty clear that a country with this political inheritance ought to be running a mile from any hint of EU membership.
For many of the architects of the European project, the democratic institutions of Weimar Germany had made it possible for a dangerous demagogue to seize the levers of power. They were determined not to let that happen again. They therefore constructed a centralised bureaucracy which, whilst not indifferent to public concerns, was free to dismiss them if they thought them trivial, parochial, or dangerous. It is still the case, even today, that the European Commission, which is the EU’s civil service, is the only body within the EU which has the authority to initiate legislation.
Unfortunately, although the decentralised, democratic political inheritance of Switzerland, is incompatible with the EU’s centralised, anti-democratic institutions, this never dampened the enthusiasm for the EU held by Switzerland’s political elite.
Switzerland helped establish the European Economic Area in the early 1990s, which would have made them members of the single market, and subject to the free movement of goods, people, and services. This was intended as a preliminary to EU membership, which they applied for in 1992. Unfortunately for the political class, the Swiss constitution made it possible for the Swiss populace to force a referendum on EEA membership, which they rejected.
Undeterred, the Swiss government managed to sign bilateral treaties with the EU in 1999, on much the same terms as existing EEA members. The later decision to join Schengen was supported by the popular vote in a referendum in 2005.
Swiss politicians have frequently been in the unenviable position of trying to reconcile their own judgement with the clear wishes of the electorate. This is never an easy balance to maintain, but this week they have decided simply to disregard the public.
The conflict was caused by a referendum in 2014 in which the voters called for caps on immigration: a decision which requires an end to Switzerland’s member of the Schengen agreement. Then last year, in the National Assembly elections, the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), who had backed the referendum, won a landslide. The same repudiation of open borders, which has been played out so often in the West recently, left the Swiss political class in a quandary. They resolved it on Friday, by voting for a compromise so diluted that the voters needn’t have bothered having the referendum in the first place.
It is too early to tell what the reaction will be, but the SVP are not happy. And if there is one thing we have learned this year, it is that when the voters have decided they want to reduce immigration levels, the worst thing to do is ignore that decision.