February 10, 2014
On Sunday 9 February, the Swiss people were called to vote upon restrictions on free movement of EU citizens in Switzerland seeking job opportunities. The referendum was intitiated by UDC and was passed by majority (50,4%), therefore turning a new page on EU-Switzerland bilateral relations. Is this a positive or a negative development after all?
No matter which political party initiated this referendum, the high level of participation as well as the width of endorsement of the proposition to impose quotas on newcomers in the country are going to bring some didactic lessons for the EU. The outcome of the referendum is not necessarily going to breach bilateral relations between EU and Switzerland, but to the contrary it is going to unveil for one more time how direct democracy works in the country and how many illusions EU decision-makers still have on the democratic capacity of the Union.
Whenever an issue of high or low politics emerges in Switzerland, the people is called to vote via the referendum process. A political party or a group of people are initiating the call for referendum, and once passed, it is brough into public debate. Whether the topic concerns the legal representation of animals before the court or the contruction of minarets in the country, experience shows that the Swiss people favors direct democracy. The outcome is always respected by all parts involved, and it is passed as constitutional law with the possibility of reconsideration to be always upon request. This political and participatory culture of public deliberation is something missing in the EU, especially for issues of wider concern (e.g. austerity politics; labor mobility policy; green energy & biofuels).
The reaction of the EU is expected to be ambiguous. EP President Mr. Schultz stated on Monday that the outcome of the Swiss referendum could bring some new developments on bilateral relations with the EU, not necessarily good ones. Nonetheless, it is vital to underline that from the outcome of the referendum the Swiss people clearly decided to protect their national economy from the major side effect of Eurozone’s economic crisis, which is the massive movement of jobless EU citizens in Switzerland. The country is already affected by the mass immigration of newcomers, being ranged from low-skilled to highly-qualified professionals, in all possible workfields: constructions, commercial and administrative positions, the health sector, self-employed. In all these workfields, the rate of incomers is almost surpassing the relevant unemployment rate per area, which accordingly leads to the following outcome: the increase of current unemployment, the increase of public spending for welfare benefits, and the pressure on lower wages to all scales of profession. In other words, the Swiss are deeply concerned about the prospective lowering of the working and benefit standards of their economy, that for tens of decades were well-preserved and prospered. And these concerns were expressed via this referendum, which in similar respect, could be brought as well in the EU public sphere. But it did not happen so far.
Lesson No. 3
Being outside of the EU institutionally, but having signed bilateral agreements with Brussels, Switzerland is in front of a major dilemma: whether to achieve more integration with the EU or preserve a compositional integration in the confederation. Geographically the country is in the middle of the EU, absorbing inflows from every possible direction. Therefore, if Switzerland were to choose more integration with the EU, it would be like adopting the side effects of the financial crisis. On the other hand, if it were to distance itself from the transnational deficiencies of the EU, it could at least precipitate the negative effect of economic turbulence. Similarly, the EU could launch an open debate about austerity politics, but it decided not to.
These lessons could nourish the debate inside the EU regarding the quality of the democratic capacity in the Union. But at the end of the day, this democratic (in)capacity proves why the EU is afraid to discuss it about and address efficiently. Sooner or later, as it happened with the wrongdoings of the monetary union, the EU will be obliged to cope with it.