After the Swiss Vote

by Andrew Stuttaford

As John Fund noted yesterday, the traditionally independent-minded Swiss, fortunate citizens of a land where referenda can, on occasion, be used to bypass the political class, have just voted to put a cap on the number of immigrants coming their way. Quite how this will work is uncertain, but, crucially, the quota will also apply to citizens of the EU, something prohibited by agreements that Bern has made with Brussels.

There will be any number of reasons why the Swiss voted the way that they did, but living in a smallish nation where roughly one in four are “immigrants” (although I believe that something like a fifth of that total is Swiss-born) must have had something to do with it. In a country that is in essence already a federation between three linguistic groups (not counting mighty Romansch) what does it really mean to be Swiss?

Writing in the New York Times, Steven Erlanger frets:

The Swiss vote is a reminder to the European Union of the danger of referendums on major issues. The French, considered committed pro-Europeans, rejected a European constitutional overhaul drafted by one of their former presidents, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, in 2005, as did the Dutch.

Ah yes, the danger of referendums.

Erlanger:

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a German-French European legislator, said that if France had voted on the same proposal as the Swiss, “it would have been worse, with 60 percent voting ‘yes.’ “

This blandly described “German-French European legislator” is in fact none other than Dany Le Rouge (“Danny the Red”) from the May 1968 student uprisings in France, a man who has now switched his faith and his fanaticism from Marx and Marcuse to Monnet. He wasn’t much of a democrat then. And whatever he may claim, he’s not much of one now.

Erlanger:

The general reluctance to consult democratic voters on important changes to European structures has fed the “democratic deficit” that feeds the euroskeptic parties — and that direct elections to the European Parliament and the greater powers provided to it under the Lisbon Treaty were intended to prevent.

On the contrary. Giving additional powers to the European Parliament was designed to hollow out Europe’s national democracies still further by passing power to an elected body that was divorced from purely national concerns. By definition that eliminated its claims to any serious democratic legitimacy. As former Czech president Vaclav Klaus famously observed, it is not possible to have a democracy without a demos, and there is no European demos. Elected by a dwindling percentage of the European electorate, the European Parliament has long been seen by voters as a pointless, powerless and crooked charade, something that is in no sense “theirs.” But the voters are out of date. The membership of the parliament is as sleazy, remote, and unrepresentative as ever, but it is now quite powerful.

But back to Switzerland. What happens now? The (up until now) unrestricted right of EU citizens to settle in Switzerland (and for Swiss citizens to settle in the EU) was part of a wider package, explicitly put together on an all or nothing basis. If the EU wants to say that the whole deal is off, it could, with (to take one example) possibly difficult implications for Swiss companies that sell their products into the EU.

Writing in the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman lays things out:

The arguments for being tough on the Swiss are fairly obvious. As [EU] Commissioner Reding kept saying, the EU’s four freedoms – of movement, capital, goods and services – are meant to be part of a coherent package. Moreover, at a time when free movement of people is coming under question in parts of the European Union itself (Switzerland, remember, is not a member), the Swiss vote provides an important opportunity to lay down a marker. EU members need to see that, if you roll back free movement, there will be a price to pay.

But, if I were an EU politician, I would be careful about following that logic. Precisely because other nations – Britain, the Netherlands, Austria, France, Germany, Denmark – may also find themselves under intense domestic pressure to modify the rules on free movement of people, their politicians might be unwise to establish the precedent that anyone who follows that path will be subject to severe retribution.

There is something else. If the EU is too harsh on the Swiss, it will reinforce the idea in voters’ minds that membership of the Brussels club means that a country has in many respects lost control of its borders. That was true, is true, and will be true, but, just a few months before what may be tricky elections for the European Parliament, it may not be a message that the EU’s elite want to sound too loudly.

Britain, as usual, adds another twist to the tale. Those in the UK’s pro-EU camp will want to avoid mentioning the “I” word. At the same time they will want to demonstrate to those uncertain whether Britain should remain in the EU that life outside the bloc would be very hard indeed. The first argues for handling the Swiss gently. The second suggests taking the opposite tack. As for prime minister David Cameron, he is faced with deciding how to react to a decision by the Swiss, albeit a unilateral one, to do something that he has said he would like to negotiate for the UK. His life just got even more difficult.

Rachman ends like this:

If I were the Eurocrats charged with handling the problem, I would resist the temptation simply to hammer the Swiss. Switzerland is a successful European economy and a well-governed democratic nation – better-governed and richer, in fact, than most members of the EU. Does the EU really want to enter some sort of cold war with its smaller neighbour? The better reaction would be to try to negotiate some deal that preserves as much of the principle of free movement within Europe as possible, while respecting the democratic will of the Swiss people.

Ironically, Switzerland — located outside the EU — may be better placed to secure a negotiated deal on these lines than is, say, Britain stuck within it. That’s because the EU is driven by the idea of “ever closer union.” There is no reverse gear. To concede that there could be, worry many in Brussels, would risk unraveling the entire European project. That fear, and the political reality that comes with it, is something that David Cameron understands very well. His problem is that to admit that reality would be to concede that his strategy of “renegotiating” Britain’s position within the EU is a mirage designed only to deceive.

And then what would he do?