Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

Can someone explain Switzerland to me?

The country works via a complex federal structure based on various different bodies elected in various different ways – from fairly straight PR through to the indirectly-elected Federal Supreme Court. The majority of powers remain devolved to a local level and the people can get directly involved via innumerable referenda, making it one of the most actively participated in democracies in the world. It could almost make a nice microcosmic model of how the EU could reform itself to gain accountability…

They’ve signed up to the Schengen and Dublin agreements for passport-free travel throughout the EU, they’ve been gradually bringing their economic policies in line with those of the EU, and now they’ve voted to allow workers from the 10 newest EU member states to live and work freely in their country.

They’re also a member of the European Free Trade Association, gaining a few handy trade deals in the process, but bizarrely not of the European Economic Area – so unlike Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein don’t gain the advantage of unfettered access to the Common Market, instead having to rely on a series of bilateral agreements with the EU. And despite signing innumerable deals with Brussels, they still haven’t made a great deal of progess towards signing up to the EU itself, even though that’s technically been a government aim for years.

The entire country seems a mass of contradictions, and I simply can’t work it out. Yes, obviously at the most simplistic level there’s a resistance to EU membership from the people. But why are they supportive of some parts of integration, yet not interested in actually having some say in the future direction of the EU by joining up properly?

If the EU goes apeshit mental (well, more so than it has so far), Switzerland could easily end up pretty much screwed. Yet all they seem to be doing at the moment is making a few concessions and signing a few agreements – some obviously beneficial, others less so (the country’s got a 3.4% unemployment rate – not much, admittedly, but if that’s the case why admit more workers from the new EU states to compete for jobs when you don’t have to and you have citizens of your own looking for work?) Why join EFTA and not the EEA, only to then negotiate bilateral agreements with the EU which pretty much amount to EEA membership without the formalities?

Is Switzerland being really bloody cunning, wrangling as much of the good stuff out of the EU without any of the crap, or is it just utterly schizophrenic? That’s what a lovely Swiss email correspondant of mine reckons (disclosure – someone who was working for the yes campaign in the run-up to this referendum):

“56% yes might not seem like much, but believe you me, it’s actually a helluva result… As you can imagine, the no-campaign was quite ugly. Together with the 55% yes to the Schengen/Dublin treaties in June, the security-paranoid-world-war-II-nostalgic Swizerland seems to be opening up. (With help of quite a chunk of dough from the yes-campaign, granted.) Even the remote East cantons (something halfway between the Midwest and the wild wide west… but east) voted yes…

“though they participated actively in the yes-campaign, the pro-europeans are now stuck in a difficult situation. If you thought that winning such a referendum would mean a new step towards the EU, think again. The so-called “bilateral way” seems to be cast in stone for a new decade and the crusade for joining the EU is entering a new path through the wilderness. The debate is now concentrating on withdrawing some dusty request sent in 1992 for opening membership negotiations…

“All the best from schizophrenic (but sunny) Switzerland”

So, again – anyone care to explain? Is there any logic here, or shall I just whack this in the file marked “the people don’t know what they want” for when I set up my global dictatorship?

(Sorry, did I say “global dictatorship”? I meant “global super happy fun time” – just easing some of the pressure off by removing the hassle of you having to bother voting every few years, that’s all…)


  1. Hi from Canada,
    Keep on going, your blog is very interesting!

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  2. Switzerland is interesting. They actually believe (and act as if they do) in this subsidiarity thing. Which is rather why I think they won�t join the EU.
    All the major powers (like tax rates etc) are held by the cantons.

  3. I suppose this is the point I should link to that thing Owen Barder did the other day, which I missed at the time and haven’t had quite enough time to think about enough to work out my own opinion (beyond being loosely sympathetic):

    What is Westminster government for?

  4. It’s all about “Propionibacter shermani.” You could say it’s Swiss Army Cuckoo Clock.

  5. the people DO know what they want –
    very precisely and very exactly � how could it be otherwise in Switzerland. They want to keep lashing thick layers of pure Alpine butter on all sides of their bread (including those you didn’t even know existed), surrounded by twenty-five pots of jam to willy nilly select the flavour of the day. European friends, just keep the bread rolling in and the Swiss will keep spreading all that fat.

  6. I suppose it depends on the factors that influence the various referendum campaigns at the time.

    Yes, it was odd that people voted against the EEA but in favour of Dublin/Schengen and the extension of freedom of movement to the new member states, but then the government seems to have run a cannier ‘yes’ campaign in these two recent referenda.

    Maybe, too, the fact that the SVP now has two seats in the government (inc. Samuel Schmid currently in the presidential seat) makes it more difficult for it to spearhead a ‘no’ campaign (and possibly split over the issue).

  7. Pronounce following words in front of a Swiss and start understanding Switzerland’s european policy:

    Co-decision: “Ahem… that would mean negociating… which would mean defending a common position… which would mean having a common position… which would mean having a policy… hum, sorry, that might take some time.”

    Peace project: (outraged) “Well, sorry, but WE never colonized anyone and WE never participated in a world war!”

    Shared sovereignty: (under shock) “Submitting to an foreign authority! Why would we want to do that?!? We’re a sovereign people. We shall continue to decide wheter we copy/paste EU-law or whether we cut/paste EU-law.”

    Enlargement: “ding dong, ding dong, ding dong etc.” (75 million customers passing through the door)

    Democracy in Europe: “How can Europe claim to be democratic when citizens don’t get to vote about the town bypass?” (citizen of Kreuzlingen in Thurgau, last Sunday, one of the majority voters who refused the south itinerary of the motorway bypass)

    Subsidiarity: (blas�) “Ah yeah, that principle that would enable Brussels to decide about bank secrecy.”

    Common market: “Shouldn’t we try creating a common domestic market first?”

  8. Switzerland is interesting for one of the reasons you mention. The overly-complex federal structure in Switzerland has made it extremely difficult to bring about accession to the EU. The EU has made some allowances because of this, that would probably not have been made for other countries. However, as you point out trying to negotiate every little aspect of these agreements from outside the EU and then having to ratify them is a tiring and cumbersome process for all involved. This is why Brussels is beginning to grow tired of dealing with Bern.