Eric S. Margolis :
DEMOCRACY CAN be so inconvenient. Take Switzerland, the closest thing the world has to a perfect democracy. Switzerland’s eight million citizens vote by referendum on all major issues. The Swiss cantons have made key decisions this way for over 800 years. This month, Swiss voters decided by a razor-thin 50.3 per cent to begin limiting immigration from the European Union within three years, perhaps much sooner. The vote in non-EU member Switzerland sent shock waves across Europe and brought a storm of abuse down on the Swiss.
In recent years, the Swiss have signed a number of agreements with the EU harmonising Swiss law with Europe that allowed unfettered Swiss commercial access to the European Union. Now, 56 per cent of Swiss exports go to the EU.
The Swiss grudgingly agreed to adhere to the EU’s basic tenet of free movement of citizens across the EU’s member states.
As a one-time Swiss resident, I found it surprising that Switzerland let commercial concerns outweigh the nation’s intense devotion to independence and, often, isolation. During the Renaissance, the Swiss battled ferociously against the Roman empire (Austria) and Burgundy to secure their independence. But then again, we just saw Swiss banks betray their clients by revealing their secret accounts to the US government.
Since then, armed neutrality guaranteed Swiss independence. Threatened in the 1939-40 by invasion from Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, the Swiss mobilised 700,000 citizens soldiers, honeycombed the high Alps with hidden fortifications, and were ordered to leave their families behind and fight to the death from the mountains. The Germans and Italians wisely decided to leave the Swiss alone.
Faced by possible Soviet invasion during the Cold War, the Swiss further expanded their top secret fortress system, much of which I was allowed to see a decade ago.
After years of debate, the Swiss reluctantly decided to amalgamate with the European Union while remaining apart politically and monetarily. But as a result of joining the Schengen Agreement that did away with many internal European borders, Switzerland further opened its doors to non-Swiss.
The result, unsurprisingly, was a flood of workers and executives, primarily from France, Italy and Portugal.
Switzerland has always had a labour shortage, particularly so for menial work and services. During the 1960s, the Swiss maintained a rigid quota system for foreign workers that often denied them the right to bring their families. Today, around 25 per cent of Swiss residents are non-Swiss. They have filled many vacant jobs and the upper ranks of finance and technology, but they are also straining housing, schools, transport and public services. A quarter of the population foreign-born is simply too much for this small, already crowded nation.
Worse, a flood of Bulgarians and Romanians now threatens to descend on Switzerland. For hundreds of thousands of East European gypsies (Roma), rich Switzerland offers generous welfare and myriad opportunities. France, plagued by street crime and robberies by Roma, offered a frightening example to the ultra law-abiding Swiss.
So Swiss voters, led by the xenophobic, right-wing People’s Party with roots in German-speaking rural Switzerland, opted to limit immigration to those truly needed by the Swiss economy. Details have yet to be revealed.
But the rest of the EU is crying bloody murder, accusing the unloved Swiss of some sinister neo-fascist plot to undermine the union. Behind all the uproar is the fear in Brussels that the Swiss clampdown will embolden increasingly influential right-wing, anti-EU parties in Britain, France, the Netherlands, Austria, Greece, and Spain who have brewed a weird ideology with hatred of the European Union and calls for secession. The Netherland’s neo-facists are of particular concern.
So far, only the Swiss have had the courage to stand up and say “no more uncontrolled immigration”. There is nothing sinister about this: The US and Canada do the same. Swiss voters were right. There’s no more room in their Alpine paradise. More immigration threatens Switzerland’s democracy and admirable traditions. Still, it’s likely some sort of compromise on this issue will be worked out.
(Eric S. Margolis is a veteran US journalist)