There were no interesting elections at the weekend, but Switzerland held one of its regular series of referenda (usually four times a year). There were three questions on the ballot, all of them on government proposals (that is, not citizen-initiated questions). One was to create a new infrastructure fund for road-building, which was approved. Another was on reforms to the company tax code, which was rejected.
But the most interesting one, as usual, was about immigration: a proposal to simplify naturalisation procedures for third-generation immigrants. It was approved, with a “yes” vote of 60.4% – a margin of more than half a million votes.
Logically, this shouldn’t have been controversial. Swiss citizenship is closely guarded – immigrants must wait 12 years before being able to apply, and there is then an exhaustive interview process – to the extent that about one resident in four is not a citizen. The new law only means that those who were born in the country, and whose parents and grandparents were permanent residents, will be able to by-pass some of the current tests.
As the BBC’s reporter put it, “Supporters of the plan … argue that it is ridiculous to ask people who were born and have lived all their lives in Switzerland to prove that they are integrated.” About 25,000 people are said to be affected, the majority of them of Italian origin.
But immigration is a touchy subject these days, and the far-right Swiss People’s Party (the country’s largest party) described the proposal as the thin end of the wedge, leading ultimately to naturalisation for all immigrants. And they made no effort to hide the fact that the particular immigrants they had in mind were Muslims.
The same party was mostly responsible for the 2014 popular initiative that very narrowly approved restrictions on immigration from the European Union. And Sunday’s proposal had also been rejected a number of times in the past – most recently in 2004, when it managed 48.4% in a referendum. (Mysteriously, the Guardian claims it was only 29%.)
The fact that the anti-immigrant side lost, and lost badly, is one of a number of positive developments in the last week or so. One, as I mentioned the other day, is the surge in support for the progressive liberal candidate, Emmanuel Macron, in France. Another was the election of Social Democrat Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was branded as a sort of anti-Trump, to the ceremonial position of president of Germany.
Steinmeier was endorsed by the ruling grand coalition, which has a large majority in the electoral college, so there was never any doubt about his victory. But the enthusiasm he seems to have attracted, including support from the Free Democrats and the Greens, is a good omen both for the Social Democrats – now running level with the Christian Democrats in the polls – and for the health of German democracy. (Although it should be noted that something like a fifth of Greens electors seem to have defected to the Left candidate.)
And speaking of Donald Trump, also newsworthy is the fact that public opinion in the United States seems to be turning against the ban on Muslim immigration. Results are highly sensitive to polling techniques and to the precise question asked, but it does look as if the trend is running in a more liberal direction.
Perhaps, having stared into the abyss, world opinion is deciding that it doesn’t like what it sees and wants to pull back.