EU-Switzerland relationships in the spotlight once again

, by Théo Boucart, translated by Elena Vardon

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

EU-Switzerland relationships in the spotlight once again
The Federal Palace in Bern (Switzerland). Source: Pixabay.

[Editor’s note: This article was originally published on September 27th. 61.7% of voters rejected the proposed immigration curbs.]

Today, the Swiss will be voting on a set of texts, one of which concerns the “limitation initiative” aiming to challenge freedom of movement between Switzerland and the European Union guaranteed by bilateral agreements. If this referendum is accepted, the entire relationship between Bern and Brussels would be called into question. We interviewed Chantal Tauxe, Swiss journalist specialized in European issues. For her, the debate suffers from the fact that neither the media nor the Swiss political class wishes to take a clear position vis-à-vis the EU.

Le Taurillon: In a referendum in December 1992, Switzerland declined to become a member of the European Economic Area (EEA). Since then, Bern has wanted to develop a bilateral relationship with the EU. Can you explain to us the nature of these bilateral relations and the context in which they were established?

Chantal Tauxe: Switzerland’s refusal to join the EEA stems largely from the campaign led by Christoph Blocher, the national councillor back then. However, the referendum’s failure lead to negotiations to establish a bilateral relationship between Bern and Brussels, which concluded, in June 1999, with the vote on the first package of bilateral agreements. Other agreements were subsequently signed: a second package in 2004, but also the Schengen and Dublin agreements.

The 1990s were marked by unfavorable economic conditions, and this can still be seen today. By comparing Switzerland’s path to that of Austria, a country of similar size, we can see that the latter country, which joined the EEA and then the European Union, has experienced much greater growth. Switzerland never recovered what it lost in the 1990s.

In addition, the Swiss government promised that immigration would remain moderate. However, while bilateral agreements have brought great prosperity to Switzerland, the immigration was considered excessive by some citizens. This was reflected in 2014, with the acceptance of a first initiative “against mass immigration” of the UDC [editor’s note: the Democratic Union of the Centre, a radical right-wing party].

Switzerland has many problems regarding occupation, access to property and transport network congestion, problems that are often associated with immigration facilitated by bilateral agreements. This feeling is not new, because in the 1970s referendums against so-called “mass” immigration were held. The perception of the Swiss-EU relationship is therefore a real mixed bag, between the benefits linked to economic integration and the fear linked to immigration. The debate on how best to guarantee our sovereignty, which was the basis for the refusal of the EEA, is now non-existent.

LT: Swiss voters are voting today on the “limitation initiative” which aims to call into question freedom of movement between Switzerland and the EU. Can you tell us about the context in which this referendum takes place, as well as the consequences, particularly the economic ones, that Switzerland could experience if this initiative were accepted?

CT: Regarding first the 2014 referendum, Parliament passed a certain implementation of it. However, it was considered insufficient by the UDC. The other Swiss political parties reacted by saying: “if you want to bring down the bilateral agreements, put the question to the voters in clearer terms”. And that’s what the UDC has chosen to do with this limitation initiative. In the text, it is clearly stated that if the country cannot regain control of immigration flows, the agreement on free movement will have to be terminated. However, this would mean that the other bilateral agreements would be null and void, by virtue of the “guillotine” clause introduced by European negotiators who had become mistrustful.

Even if polls predict today that the initiative will be rejected, the Federal Council, but also trade unions and business circles, believe that the termination of the bilateral agreements would be very damaging for the Swiss economy, in particular because these agreements provide access to the single market and recognition of industry standards. Switzerland earns one in two francs from its exports, which represents a trade volume with the EU of one billion francs per day. So if all of a sudden products are discriminated against or if Swiss industries are no longer subcontractors in production chains involving Germans, Italians or other countries, it would be very damaging to the economy.

It should also be noted that this is the twelfth time that the Swiss have voted on a European issue since 1992, and the alarmist rhetoric predicting the end of the Swiss economy in the event of a “No to the EU” no longer convinces anyone. The Federal Council, the parties against the initiative and business circles no longer say that it would be a “disaster”, but that it would be very hard to get the EU to come back to the negotiating table, especially in the context of Brexit, where each concession granted for Switzerland could be exploited by the United Kingdom. The room for manoeuvre to drop the “guillotine” clause is therefore very small, and some do not want to add economic uncertainty in times of COVID-19.

LT: Speaking of political parties and Federal Councillors, what is their position concerning the European Union? During a seminar held in Bern in early September, you said for example that most Federal Councillors were afraid to speak out on the issue, even when they were promised their comments would stay off the record.

CT: During the 1990s, when the question of EU membership began to arise, several political parties were in favor. The Swiss Liberal Party [editor’s note: which, in 2009, merged with the Free Democratic Party (FDP) to form FDP.The Liberals], the Christian Democratic People’s Party and the Socialist Party (PS) were in favor of membership. The FDP was not against it because the project was handled by one of its ministers. At that time, the government even claimed that Switzerland would eventually join the EU.

And then Christoph Blocher arrived at the Federal Council in 2004, which intensified the UDC’s lobbying to withdraw the membership application. This eventually happened in 2016, even though the process was at a standstill well before that. This decision deeply annoyed Europeans, as several concessions in bilateral negotiations were made because Switzerland was a potential candidate for membership and a potential net contributor to the European budget.

The bilateral route is therefore viewed, by most political parties (except the UDC), as a pragmatic solution which would be good for Switzerland. These parties, therefore, refrain from thinking differently about European integration and from considering the benefits of EU membership, which would allow us to develop European law with others, rather than passively accepting it. We are in a sort of vacuum where we only talk about bilateral issues, without seeing EU developments and the evolution of its thinking on major challenges such as digital technology or taxation. By voting for the bilateral path, all political parties have stepped away from the issue and only the PS still supports becoming a member. Even the Swiss-EU framework agreement, for which the negotiation is due to be finalized in the coming months, fails to bring together the Swiss political community.

As a result, pro-European sentiment fell sharply in Switzerland. Currently, opinion polls show that only 20% of the population would support membership. Here too, we see a marked difference between the French-speaking cantons and Basel, traditionally favorable to opening up; and the much more reserved German-speaking cantons and Ticino [editor’s note: the only entirely Italian-speaking Swiss canton]. There is also a big difference between the more cosmopolitan and pro-European cities and the countryside.

LT: Conversely, Switzerland is often considered as a model of democracy and federalism in Europe. Do you agree?

CT: The Swiss political and intellectual elites like to think so. According to them, Switzerland is a miniature Europe and a source of inspiration for the continent’s integration, particularly through our experience of semi-direct democracy. For me, this is an arrogant attitude, and the idea that our democracy is perfect annoys me very much. In the European Union, many other countries use referendums. In addition, the rise of populism in Switzerland predates many EU Member States. More consultation of the people does not, therefore, necessarily mean neutralizing populism.

Regarding federalism, it is true that we have, or at least we had, a fairly successful tradition of managing conflicts, canton and linguistic differences. However, this successful experience of federalism also exists in Germany, and to a much lesser extent in Belgium. Switzerland would therefore have something to contribute to the EU when it comes to subsidiarity [1], but without being too arrogant. The EU is made up of countries with very different histories which must be respected, and which should not be analyzed from a purely Swiss perspective.

I would also say that Swiss federalism is a way to neutralize debates and weaken the state. Our political system does not allow us to have great political powers and we must constantly negotiate to sometimes reach modest compromises. I think that the EU at this point in its history needs courageous leaders who dare to express ambitions that do not boil down to the lowest common denominator.

LT: Since the closure of the newspaper L’Hebdo in 2017, there does not seem to be any Swiss media with a clearly pro-European editorial line. How does the Swiss media deal with European news today? Are there linguistic and canton differences?

CT: L’Hebdo was a newspaper with a pro-European editorial line. This editorial positioning was not taken up again by any media in French-speaking Switzerland. I recently learned that a newspaper in Fribourg, La Liberté [editor’s note: considered the most credible Swiss media, according to a poll conducted in August], considered recommending a vote against the limitation initiative. In the days of L’Hebdo, which had some influence on the public debate in French-speaking Switzerland, the majority trend was more in favor of opening up to Europe. The media no longer have this positioning and have become more sensitive to the mainstream narrative of the UDC. There are now more doubts and fewer convictions. Like political parties, the media refrains from analyzing the European issue in-depth and structuring the debate.

To understand an issue, you must first be familiar with it. There are very few Swiss correspondents in Brussels and some work for several media networks. Knowledge of European news and the mysteries of Brussels is therefore less widespread than it was 10 or 15 years ago. Furthermore, European issues are not what most captivates Swiss public opinion, which is very focused bilateral agreements, and also convinced that the European negotiators do not want to give Switzerland anything for free. It’s even worse in Ticino: the newspaper Il mattino della domenica, controlled by the Lega dei Ticinesi, the Ticinese counterpart of Matteo Salvini’s Lega, publishes degrading tirades every Sunday aimed at politicians and pro-European activists.

I’ll be sarcastic, but Switzerland likes being “neutral”. However, neutral and balanced information on the European debate is not necessarily made available to the public. On television screens, it is always the same people who are invited and this contributes to the narrowing of the debate around bilateral agreements. When we consider the media coverage of the presidential campaign in the United States, we see that the media in Switzerland are doing much more to follow the “Trump soap opera” than to decipher European issues.

LT: How do you see the future of the European debate in Switzerland?

CT: The world of Swiss media is currently experiencing a deep crisis which is certainly not over. Parliament is currently discussing the possibility of providing the media with structural aid, and not just circumstantial aid related to COVID-19. However, interests diverge, between those of the print media, online, radio and television, the latter being financed in Switzerland by a license [editor’s note: which almost disappeared in 2018 with the “No Billag” initiative]. Some editorial boards also have fewer advertising resources and fewer journalists, which can sometimes lead to the disappearance of newspapers.

I thought L’Hebdo’s death was going to cause an electric shock, and yet Le Matin suspended its print edition the following year. Internet sites have been created, such as Republik in German-speaking Switzerland or Bon pour la tête in French-speaking Switzerland. However, no one has succeeded in finding a new economic model and sponsorship, although well developed in Switzerland, has not yet massively invested in the media world.

Overall, I see a deterioration in the treatment of European news in Switzerland. However, the media must actually play their role, in particular in the analysis of negotiations around the framework agreement which settles questions of interpretation of European law in Switzerland in the event of a dispute with the EU. This is a very technical topic and there may be a need for an explanation for the public opinion that could revitalize coverage of European issues. This better coverage could even be enabled by the State of the Union address delivered by Ursula von der Leyen on September 16th: the EU is seen to be shifting into high gear and putting forward concrete proposals. All this will perhaps awaken the attention of the Swiss and their media.

However, I still think there is a “Swiss paradox”: in Europe, we look like Eurosceptics and parasites, but we are the only country that votes so much on Europe. Despite the poor editorial coverage of our press, Swiss citizens still have more opportunities to reflect on European issues than in other EU member countries.

[1] subsidiarity: the principle that a central authority should have a subsidiary (or, less important) function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed at a more local level.

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