Swiss vote to renew and extend ties with EU


Yesterday’s result was celebrated as a triumph of Swiss direct democracy, writes Derek Scallyin Berne

SWITZERLAND HAS promised “greater dynamism” in its relations with the EU after voters yesterday reaffirmed and extended their bilateral relationship with the bloc.

Some 59.6 per cent of Swiss voters agreed to renew mutual work and travel arrangements with the EU and to extend them to Romania and Bulgaria.

The future of Swiss-EU relations was thrown into doubt as rising job losses in a weakening economy left voters worried about a potential flood of cheap labour from the union’s newest, and poorest, member states.

“The important thing from the vote is that people increasingly support the bilateral path we are going with the EU and that this is the right time to formalise this arrangement,” said foreign minister Micheline Calmy-Rey to The Irish Times.

After years of ad-hoc relations, she travels to Brussels this week with a popular mandate to begin talks on a new formal framework of co-operation.

After stirring up fears of a rise in crime, wage dumping and immigrant social welfare abuse, the defeated Swiss People’s Party (SVP) yesterday predicted dire effects in the near future.

“After years of economic growth, the real test of these new work rights will come in two or three years as unemployment rises,” said SVP MP Adrian Amstutz.

Yesterday’s clear result and relatively high turnout of 50.9 per cent indicated that voters realised the gravity of rejecting equal working rights for Bulgarians and Romanians, namely the cancellation of other bilateral EU treaties, on trade and travel issues.

“I’m just glad people here realised there are good and bad people in any culture,” said Bulgarian national Yulimar Babarova, who lives and works in Berne. “I pay my taxes and, like most of other Bulgarians, just want a chance to make a contribution to Swiss society.”

Yesterday’s result was celebrated here as a triumph of Swiss direct democracy, the system that has served the country well for over a century.

While most EU governments view referendums with dread, Swiss ministers said yesterday they would have stood by the referendum result even if it had gone against them.

“There is no guarantee of a Yes vote in a referendum, but having the vote itself is a precondition to even having a chance at a Yes,” said justice minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf. “In other countries, on matters of state importance, I think personally that the people must be asked.”

With an eye on Ireland’s Lisbon Treaty vote, an official familiar with the Swiss and Irish tradition of referendums, observed that “Swiss direct democracy is not half as problematic as referendums in Ireland’s ‘occasional direct democracy’.” Well-organised civic education programmes encourage Swiss citizens to propose laws by popular initiative backed by 100,000 signatures.

Just 50,000 signatures can force a referendum to act as a brake or to force consensus on an issue.

The only negative referendum outcome ever overturned by the Swiss parliament was when voters rejected the introduction of summer time in conjunction with the rest of Europe.

Information materials for yesterday’s vote were models of clarity and brevity, devised by a team of legal, political and language experts to explain complex issues and unfamiliar terms in accessible language.

“If the government want to find a majority, they know they cannot manipulate but can only hope to provide full information and convince people of their way of looking at an issue,” says Thomas Abegglen, a journalist turned communications officer in the federal chancellery.

Aiding the constructive public dialogue is the productive political dialogue in Switzerland’s unique cross-party government in Berne, the federal council.

Finding consensus through continual public and political consultation is a tiring business, but politicians say it serves a vital control function.

“As a politician, it forces you to stay informed and close to the people, because you know in the back of your head that everything you vote for may one day be put to a referendum,” said Christa Markwalder Bär, an MP for the liberal Free Democrats.

The public debate and interest in EU affairs in Switzerland would be praiseworthy in any EU member state but is truly remarkable in a country not even in the union.

Yesterday’s vote was a pro-EU vote, but most Swiss remain of the view that full membership is incompatible with their country’s cherished direct democracy.

“Because of our federal system, we would lose a lot of our democratic values in the EU institutions,” said economic affairs minister Doris Leuthard yesterday.

“When the EU adds more participation of the citizens and regions, that would be a more favourable situation for Switzerland.”