A recent conference at the Swiss Embassy in London considered the future of EU-Swiss relations. Despite the fact that the conference was initiated by Clive Church, a Jean Monnet professor from Kent University, and also the underlying belief among some of the speakers that the EU was the best and inevitable institution for all European peoples to join, the conference agreed there was no prospect of Switzerland joining the EU in the foreseeable future.
The present position of Switzerland is that the 1992 application, to open talks on accession to the EU, is frozen following the rejection by the electorate in a referendum of the signed agreement by the Swiss government to join the EEA in 1992. Since then the Swiss government has developed its EU relations by two sets of Bilateral Agreements, both of which have been approved by popular referendum. In 2001 a proposal to commence EU accession negotiations was massively voted down.
The continuous stream of referendums on EU matters put before the Swiss people since 1992 has led to well organised and vociferous opposition, spearheaded by the Swiss Peoples Party (SVP) and the EU question has become the most divisive issue in Switzerland.
There are two notable characteristics of Swiss politics. Above all, the system of Cantonal and democracy whereby, since 1848, a double majority system (that is, a majority of voters and of cantons) is necessary for changes to the Constitution, together with a process of optional referendums which can be called for by 50,000 voters, means that the bargaining away of democratic rights or sharing sovereignty, practised by elites in other countries, cannot always prevail. Instead the Swiss people are now on the alert and opponents of the EU are ready and organised.
Second, the confederal nature of Swiss politics, together with direct democracy, has made for a careful, prudent system of decision making, especially following the chastening effect of the 1992 referendum. For example, the Swiss government produced its Europe 2006 Report which made a careful evaluation of the costs of various alternative arrangements with the EU. This highlighted all the costs of joining the EU, an annual budgetary cost of SF 3.4 billion (£1.41 billion), as well as the abandonment of the franc. The Report laid out the details carefully in a proper cost/benefit study of the type the British government has still failed to do, even after 34 years of membership. It quite candidly spoke of the “negative fallout for the economy” and robustly stated “the purpose of Swiss foreign policy is to defend the national interests, whether materiel or immaterial” [sic].
A further attractive aspect of the Swiss negotiating style is that they bargain firmly for the national interest but also observe their agreements “Switzerland was the most punctilious observer of union directives, bar none” is a quote by Professor Church.
The recent bilateral agreements arranged with the EU are very different from the slipshod opt-outs negotiated by the British government from recent EU treaties. After all, they have to be approved by a substantial majority of the population.
Take the free movement of persons. This is subject to the ability of Switzerland to introduce quotas if there was a unsustainable increase in the number of EU workers and is also subject to a referendum in 2009 whether to maintain the agreement or not. Moreover, the free movement of persons is subject to caveats about proof of ability to support themselves. One could contrast this with the British government’s carelessness about admissions of East European labour.
A further interesting area is the decision of the Swiss government to contribute SF1billion to the ten new EU states. “It will be disbursed over five years on specific projects and programmes selected by Switzerland in co-operation with the recipient states.” There is, therefore, no Brussels’ slush fund with its accompanying bureaucratic costs and political manipulation as found in the EU regional programmes. Indeed the Swiss government has publicly welcomed its non-participation in the cohesion programme. Contrast this with Britain’s budget contribution. Once it goes to Brussels there is no British control whatever on what the money is spent on.
Despite prudent decision-making and the ever-present necessity of following the people’s will by referendum, the use of bilateral agreements, as well as the decision by the Swiss government to “EU proof’ its proposed laws so they fit in with the EU”, has led to what critics call ‘europeanisation’ and has led to vigorous populist scrutiny and ever increasing voters for the SVP.
While it may be sensible to harmonise regulations to fit in with its giant neighbours, too much Europeanisation has harmful effects. First, because EU-Swiss relations are on a government-to-government basis, this causes centralising tendencies within Switzerland itself. Second, the EU is not a static agreement. Thousands of civil servants are constantly pushing forward EU regulations, so signing up to an area of co-operation may make sense at a point in time but makes for uncomfortable decisions when the giant partner decides to increase the scope of its regulations. Third, such close ties to the EU inevitably must consign Switzerland to the EU’s demographic, political and economic fate – relative decline in the world.
The conference experts considered that Switzerland was leading a trend to populism based on distrust of the political classes, a trend constantly empowered by the existence of direct democracy. The current decision by the EU political class to ignore the results of the French and Dutch referendums and push through the constitution with slightly different packaging would be quite unthinkable in Switzerland.
Whether pro-EU or not, no-one believes Switzerland will join the EU in the foreseeable future. The existence of direct democracy shows how important are constitutions and how such a set-up leads to careful, prudent, open democracy.
FUTURUS/01 February 2008