Geneva / Switzerland

Swiss Cheese and Politics Don’t Mix

In theory, direct democracy seems like a great idea (“Let the people decide!”), very much in the same way that, in theory, communism seems so benevolent (“Do away with classes! Equality for all!”). Yet, seeing these theories put into practice (and what I’m mostly condemning here is communism – the Miamian in me cannot resist) has shown us time and time again that these ideas are simply better off remaining as such.

Just a week ago Switzerland showed the world how badly direct democracy can fail. After the referendum that I spoke of in my previous post actually took place, to everyone’s surprise here in Geneva, the Swiss voted ‘NO’ on mass immigration (50.3 percent, to be exact). Were Switzerland not a sole island in a sea of 28 EU member states, this would not really pose any real problem or threat. However, being that Switzerland’s main trading partner is the European Union (56 percent of exports; 80 percent of imports), the decision is going to have very negative economic (and other) implications.

Anti-immigration propaganda.

Anti-immigration propaganda.

However, the people have spoken – and the EU has responded.

As the Vice President of the European Commission, Ms. Viviane Reding declared to the press:

“We respect the democratic vote of the Swiss people. The four fundamental freedoms – free movement of people, goods, capital and services – are not separable. The single market is not a Swiss cheese. You cannot have a single market with holes in it.”

Thus, right off the bat, the EU decided to freeze the research grants it usually awards Swiss universities and suspend Erasmus exchanges. The halt on research will have a direct effect on F and his work, as funds from the Swiss government pale in comparison to the multi-million endowments contributed annually by the EU; the stop on international student exchanges will only make the Swiss (those who voted in favor of capping immigration) even more close-minded. I’ve even heard buzz about the franc depreciating in the coming months as it is expected that many business will try to find a way out of Switzerland – that’s a pretty grim prediction.

One German professor made quite the statement when he decided to quit his job at the Federal Institute for Technology in Zurich (ETH), citing not wanting to be exposed to “the incredibly xenophobic climate in Switzerland” as his reason for leaving. I would say that many immigrants are just as curious as he is as to how the Swiss will “get along without [them]” considering that immigrants account for 23 percent of the whole population (of 8 million), second only to Luxembourg. Switzerland is more so a nation of immigrants than it likes to think.

This interactive map shows exactly where the initiative was blocked or welcomed (the green meaning yes to capping immigration while the orange meaning no, to leave immigration policies as they are). It’s interesting to see how much of the German and Italian-speaking parts of Switzerland were for the initiative, while the French-speaking portion and Zurich, the largest city, voted to reject the initiative. I can’t say that I know enough about the nature of Swiss cantonal politics to understand why that is but it’s worth noting.

The vote comes at a time when immigration is causing a lot of rifts across Europe, namely in the UK, where PM David Cameron has promised to hold a referendum in 2017 on the matter (if he is re-elected), and in some others (also in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and Italy). In some ways, I can see how the Brits can justify the sudden urge to lift the drawbridge on the English fort, as  unemployment has risen alongside the influx of immigrants, particularly from the newer EU member states. However, the same cannot be said for Switzerland, which maintains one of the lowest unemployment rates in the region. One thing is certain: all eyes are on Switzerland now and whatever the outcome, be it good or bad, will surely affect other countries’ decisions to adopt similar, restrictive policies.

Stay tuned…

P. S. Did I mention that calling someone a “foreign pig” or “dirty asylum-seeker” is not punishable under Switzerland’s anti-racism law? Yeah…

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