GUEST BLOG: The Odd Couple? Switzerland and the EU in the Wake of the Initiative Against Mass Immigration by Richard McClelland

We have a guest post this week by Richard McClelland, a former UoS postgraduate student who was awarded a Distinction in his MA in Germanic Studies. He is now working on a PhD thesis at King’s College London, which looks at contemporary independent theatre in German-speaking Switzerland. 

The Swiss Confederation takes both its sovereignty and its democratic tradition seriously. So ingrained are these values into the Swiss national psyche that they are even the main features of the nation’s founding myth, in which the semi-legendary Wilhelm Tell precipitated the rebellion of his fellow countrymen against the oppressive yoke of Habsburg rule. As a semi-direct democracy, Swiss citizens are able to vote at local, cantonal and federal levels on a myriad of issues, ranging from increasing the opening hours of petrol stations (2013; approved) and regulating book prices (2012; rejected), to the more infamous banning of minarets (2009; approved) and the expulsion of all foreign criminals (2010; approved).

The majority of Swiss referenda only affect those living in Switzerland. However, the most recent referendum, “Against mass immigration,” will undoubtedly affect the EU as a whole, targeted as it was at the core EU principle of the free movement of people. Led by the right-wing populist Swiss People’s Party (SVP), the campaign was ran along lines which are undoubtedly familiar to those who are aware of the rhetoric used by similar parties across Europe: foreigners are directly responsible for unemployment, increasing rents and (to add a Swiss twist), overcrowded trains.

As far as Swiss referenda concerning immigration and the EU are concerned, the results of this recent referendum are unsurprising. Geographical break-downs of voter patterns shows that the traditionally more Europhile, French-speaking cantons of western Switzerland voted against the proposal. The same is true of urban centres in German-speaking Switzerland: the country’s largest city, Zürich, as well as Basel and the federal capital, Bern, all voted against the SVP’s initiative. Somewhat paradoxically (if one follows the SVP line of argument), the cantons with the highest number of foreign-born residents were most against the SVP: in both Geneva, where 40% of the population is non-Swiss, and Basel City, where 35% of the population is foreign, less that 40% of votes cast were in favour of the referendum. Unsurprisingly, parallels can be drawn with the Minarettverbot (minaret-ban) and the Ausschaffungsinitiative (expulsion-initiative); those areas most in favour of these referenda were those in which the majority of “yes” votes were cast.

The ramifications that this result will have on Switzerland’s future role in Europe are great. Though not a member of the EU, the country is currently a member of the Schengen-zone. It is also a member of the single market, meaning Swiss products can be sold freely across the EU. The Swiss National Bank has even set a limit to inflation based on the euro. It is no wonder, then, that the political elite in Bern are uneasy about the result: the referendum has thrown the country’s relationship with the EU into the air. Politicians in Paris, Berlin and Brussels have condemned the vote, maintaining that the free movement of people is a cornerstone of the single market, and that Switzerland cannot pick and choose which elements of EU law it wants to follow if the relationship is to be maintained.

Undoubtedly, eurosceptics in Britain have hailed the result. Indeed, UKIP and MPs on the right of the Conservative Party have seized the result as proof that immigration can, and should, be controlled to protect the autochthonous population. Not only the European elections in May, but also the British general election next year will be characterised by the “European question” and the role of Britain in the future. It is unclear how this referendum will alter Switzerland’s partnership with the EU, but whatever happens, developments in the Alps will undoubtedly give British voters a preview of what is to come should they vote to change our current relationship with our European neighbours.

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2 Responses to GUEST BLOG: The Odd Couple? Switzerland and the EU in the Wake of the Initiative Against Mass Immigration by Richard McClelland

  1. ninaschmidt says:

    Thanks for this piece, Rich! I was close to attempt writing about it, but you have done so in a much more balanced way than I might have done.
    As a native speaker of (German) German, I am regularly (and weirdly) impressed by Swiss bureaucratic terms; ‘Ausschaffungsinitiative’ has now been added to my list of vocab. I am always surprised how these terms seem hardly intelligible – no chance I would have guessed that word’s meaning correctly.
    ‘Tis a different world down there!

  2. Pingback: The Odd Couple? Switzerland and the EU in the wake of the initiative against mass immigration | rich.mcclelland

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