The Clockwork Island in the Heart of Europe

While the philosophies of euro-visionaries Robert Schumann and Jean Monnet have brought Western Europe closer together, one country at the continent’s heart has strongly resisted being part of such an enterprise. It is a country of immense paradox, its citizens enjoying a standard of living that is among the highest in the world, its economy continuing to prosper, yet at the same time moving ever further to the political right. In the wake of the Lehmann Brothers collapse, which plunged much of the world’s economy into recession, the advocates of the individual nation versus the collective in this country find themselves vindicated more than ever.

Have you guessed which country I’m talking about? While Switzerland may lie in the heart of Europe, you may find in this small Alpine nation some of the strongest support for Euroscepticism.

In many ways, the story begins more than 700 years ago. In 1291, peasants in three Cantons rose up against their Habsburg rulers with alacrity and remarkable military success. To sum up the creation of a state in such a manner may be overly simplistic but the comparison of the country’s status as it is today with its founding fathers is an endlessly fascinating one.

Chiefly, it yields two character traits just as applicable then as now. First is the desire to be master of one’s own lot. The desire for autonomy is present in the original Federal Charter, concurrently with cooperation within the Eidgenossenschaft. Today, this desire takes a much more convoluted form. On the one hand, each of the 26 Cantons enjoys independence comparable to the federal and state system in the USA, a solution that leads to as many complications as practicalities due to the vastly smaller geographical areas involved.

On the other hand, the practice of direct democracy is at the forefront of politics with citizens called up to vote regularly on both regional and national laws. In addition, the country is led not by one but seven members of the Bundesrat.

The second trait is somewhat more pragmatic, namely pride in the small. The belief in localised community is strong and in the Swiss-German dialect, there is a strong inclination to describe terms in the diminutive form. This predilection likely stems from the knowledge that the principles of rule established in 1848 have yet to fail and may, perhaps rightly so, be considered a form of solipsism. This in turn leads to a mistrust of change, especially that coming from outside.

The current brand of Swiss Euroscepticism has everything to do with national pride, born in no small part out of the country’s ability to remain neutral through two world wars but also out of the economic prowess and high standard of living in their aftermath.

Switzerland’s neutrality, particularly from 1939-45 had less to do with itself than with others. Its armed forces would have been quite incapable of dealing with any invasion, but the maintenance of its borders is seen as the successful resistance against much greater forces.

Increasing collaboration of Western-European powers in the post-war years met with equal patriotic resistance — to be ruled by Brussels would be to surrender national sovereignty. In the post-war years, popular conservatism found a new voice in the political far right, reaching its zenith in the century’s final decade. For the first time since the 1830s, the classical liberal Free Democratic Party’s (FDP or FDP.Die Liberalen after a 2009 merger) position as the most powerful party began to be seriously challenged.

The Swiss People’s Party, the SVP was formed in 1971 out of a collective of farmer’s parties and gradually began to gain political pulling power. The spearheading figure of Christoph Blocher in particular moulded the party’s image and identified European integration and immigration as major issues. Blocher’s radical Zürich branch of the party gradually edged out a more moderate strain from Bern in the 1990s. He successfully led the party to a landslide victory in the 1999 general election: 22.5% of the vote confirmed the SVP as the most powerful party in the national assembly and the two following two elections increased this by about 4% each. Effectively, this made Euro-scepticism state policy.

Opposition to becoming a member state of the E.C. and later the E.U. had long been a topic of debate. Most significantly, the 1992 referendum rejected an integration proposal, if only by the narrowest of margins. Of course, complete isolation could never be a solution and integration instead resulted in a series of bilateral agreements best described as having your cake and eating it too. Economically, the country profits immensely from the open market, while at the same time not having to subscribe to, say, the common agricultural policy.

Switzerland is at the heart of Europe and so far from it at the same time. Such a paradox is strongly illustrated in the reliance on cheap, immigrant labour. The story of Italian migrants, such as those that mined the Gotthard tunnel in the late 19th century, was mirrored by the influx of refugees from the Balkans in the 1990s. Colloquial derogatory terms have been coined for both groups, yet their role in propping up the workforce is an unavoidable fact.

As a result, an immigration and integration debate is reignited every few years and is a regular feature in election campaigns, most markedly 2007 when a bill proposing the deporting of foreigners upon entering the criminal record was responsible for stirring up much isolationist sentiment. The SVP’s now infamous headliner poster featured three white sheep kicking a black sheep off a Swiss flag, under the slogan “Sicherheit Schaffen” (“To Create Security”). As with the party’s anti- minaret campaign two years later, the poster received international attention. Its message appears to be finding grass-root support — their powerful status has now been affirmed for four consecutive terms.

Nevertheless, voters in 2005 accepted a part in the Schengen Agreement by a majority of 5%, guaranteeing free movement of people across European borders. Almost 60% voted in favour of extending this freedom to the E.U.’s newest member states of Romania and Bulgaria in 2009.

Swiss citizens increasingly find themselves in a world they do not recognise, one that moves quickly and discards more traditional values. The incompatibility between the localised and the globalised – the individual and the collective – plays itself out in direct democracy. Perhaps the move to the far right is not surprising. To paraphrase the great Christopher Hitchens — humans long for change but are immediately suspicious of it when it arrives.

Johannes Ruckstuhl