Switzerland tries to back out of Europe

Not for the first time, immigration is a controversial topic this week on both sides of the Atlantic. Tomorrow I want to have a look at the prospects for immigration reform in the United States; for now, let’s look at Europe.

There were no European elections last weekend, but Switzerland voted on three referendum questions. One, carried by a large majority, was to approve a federal decree on funding and expanding rail infrastructure; another, rejected by an even larger majority, was an initiative to end health insurance cover for abortion.

But it was the third that got most of the attention: by a wafer-thin margin – 50.3%, or about 20,000 votes in almost three million – the Swiss voted in favor of an initiative to restrict immigration. It will oblige the Swiss government to set quotas for all immigrants, including those from the European Union.

Switzerland is not a member of the EU, but a complex web of treaties give it most of the rights and obligations of a member state. In particular, it is bound by the Schengen agreement for the free movement of people across most of Europe. Opponents of the referendum, including most of the Swiss government, tried to point out that a “yes” vote, by reneging on that obligation, would jeopardise Switzerland’s economic future.

Once again, as we’ve seen with the immigration debate in Britain, the EU appears (contrary to conventional wisdom) as the champion of individual freedom. As the BBC reports, “The EU’s Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said in reaction to the Swiss vote: free movement of people, goods, capital and services is not separable. ‘The single market is not a Swiss cheese – you cannot have a single market with holes in it.'”

Two of Switzerland’s more unusual constitutional practices are seen at work here. One is the citizen initiated referendum, a venerable Swiss institution and one that I broadly support. Back in 2005, when Swiss voters approved the extension of the Schengen rules to the then-new EU members, I said “Countries that trust their voters to make decisions find that they get it right most of the time; extremism flourishes where that trust is absent.”

And indeed one could hardly say that extremism is “flourishing” when the anti-immigration initiative passed by such a tiny margin. Given the state of the immigration debate on much of the continent, such a proposal may well have been carried more decisively in a number of other countries. But this is the problem with political decision-making: it’s an all-or-nothing affair. A margin of 20,000 votes is just as good as two million.

It does seem, however, strongly counter-intuitive that fundamental changes can be made to a country’s international position with just a bare majority in a popular vote. Would it really be contrary to the spirit of citizen decision-making to provide that overturning an established treaty provision required some sort of special majority, say 60%?

The other distinctive constitutional arrangement is the way Switzerland’s executive works. The cabinet, or Federal Council, is elected by parliament but is not responsible to it, and in practice for more than 50 years it has always been a grand coalition – currently consisting of two social democrats, two liberals, two centre-right (from different parties) and one from the hard right People’s Party.

Those numbers are governed by convention and are largely unrelated to actual strength in parliament or the electorate. At the last election, in 2011, the People’s Party won easily the largest share of the vote (26.6%), but still holds only one of the seven cabinet positions.

The People’s Party was the prime mover of the anti-immigration initiative: participation in government did not prevent it from backing a policy that’s clearly subversive of the internationalist position that the government as a whole generally pursues. A more conventional sort of responsible government, where parties move in and out of office and can be made accountable for government policy, might have prevented this situation from arising.

Yet despite its constitutional oddities, Switzerland faces the same populist currents of opinion as its neighbors. Difficult economic times produce a search for scapegoats, and immigrants are always among the first to be targeted.

Sunday’s vote shows the Swiss deeply divided on how far to embrace the populist approach. But with the anti-immigrant position just falling across the line, it will now be up to the EU to determine on what terms Switzerland can stay within the Schengen fold.


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