Rethinking Europe

Swiss Hold Second Referendum and Say Yes to Europe

The Brexit virus refuses to cross the Channel.

Takeaways


  • The Swiss have decisively rejected calls to go down the Brexit road by closing down freedom of movement.
  • The Swiss people have spoken and said yes to the EU -- or rather no to saying no to the EU for the first time in Swiss history.
  • The result of the Swiss referendum is a relief for Brussels -- where leaders of European institutions were frightened that the Brexit virus might cross the Channel.
  • The Swiss look at their neighbors like Italy, France or Germany and know that if Europe catches a cold, the Swiss get flu.

The Swiss have decisively rejected calls to go down the Brexit road by closing down freedom of movement.

In a referendum on 27th September, the Swiss voted by over 60% to say no to a proposal that the Alpine country should close frontiers currently open to EU citizens.

The referendum was proposed by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), a right-wing but not extreme populist party, which over 30 years has grown in support on the basis of unrelenting hostility to the European Union and to immigration.

A humiliating defeat

The referendum result on Sunday was the worst defeat in the SVP’s history. The SVP also lost support in the elections to the federal parliament last December as two Green parties surged.

The referendum result is a relief for Brussels, where leaders of European institutions were frightened that the Brexit virus might cross the Channel and infect other political formations to become more anti-European.

Keeping the English virus at bay

In fact, the opposite has happened. It is too fanciful to talk of herd immunity, but the Europeans are looking with amazement at the mess the UK is making of Brexit.

The well-publicized talk of repudiating solemn international agreements and international law and regular reports of possible chaos and queues at frontiers are giving the European parties, pause. Those who applauded Brexit in 2016 are now having to keep the English virus at bay.

Last weekend, Italy’s Matteo Salvini, who celebrated in 2016 the Brexit vote along with Donald Trump’s then European political envoy, Steve Bannon, lost badly in regional elections failing to win Tuscany — which some in the London press said would swing to the hard right.

Populism fading

Other politicians hostile to Europe like France’s Marine le Pen, the Dutch Geert Wilders or Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) are also fading.

The decisive move to construct a COVID 19 rescue package in Brussels stands in contrast to the budget and fiscal orthodoxy following the financial crash a decade ago.

Now, Europe, even with groans and protests from some, is putting serious money into rebooting the damaged Greek, Italian and Spanish economies — and has outlined a continuation of the “Whatever it takes” philosophy.

Their neighbors sneeze, the Swiss have chills

Switzerland is neither in the Eurozone, nor does it suffer from a poorly managed economy. But the Swiss look at their neighbors like Italy, France or Germany and know that if Europe catches a cold, the Swiss get flu.

The SVP assumed that hostility to the EU would grow steadily after the financial crash, and due to the problem of asylum seekers arising from military interventions in Libya and Syria promoted by David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy — when both men in 2011 sought to imitate Tony Blair.

Meeting up in Davos

There are regular annual meetings of Swiss and British MPs in Davos during the skiing season. The affection for Britain is undimmed in Swiss political circles — but no-one sees Brexit as anything other than an unholy mess which no-one seems to know how to get out of.

The Swiss did vote narrowly in 2014 to end freedom of movement which the EU stipulated as a condition for continuing Swiss access to the EU single market. But Swiss parliamentarians took charge of the 2014 referendum result and cooked up a package to increase training and job opportunities for Swiss citizens.

This calmed down the anti-EU immigrant fervor, so the effort now by the SVP to get a confirmation of their 2014 vote was clearly rejected.

Endless plebiscites still a problem

The result brings sighs of relief all around — but does nothing to solve other EU-Swiss problems. In essence, the EU would like an overall agreement to cover relations and future difficulties that will arise with dispute resolution mechanisms that avoid endless plebiscites.

Given the Swiss attachment to referendums, this will be difficult to achieve. But at least the people have spoken — and said Yes to the EU, or rather No to saying No to the EU for the first time in Swiss history.

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About Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane is a Contributing Editor at The Globalist. He was the UK's Minister for Europe from 2002 to 2005 — and is the author of “Brexiternity. The Uncertain Fate of Britain” published by IB Tauris-Bloomsbury, London, October 2019. Follow him @DenisMacShane

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