Switzerland says ‘We’re full’
Swiss voters have opted for stiff restrictions on immigrants entering the country — including those from European Union countries. In doing so, they’ve given joy to the burgeoning anti-immigrant, anti-EU parties, a blow to the politicians and officials in Brussels and a blaring warning to center parties on the continent and everywhere.
In Europe, the consensus on immigration has always been fragile — and now it’s being shredded to bits.
The vote was narrow — 50.3 percent of the electorate with a mere 19,000 votes. However, this is Switzerland, where the people’s voice is paramount. Over the next three years, the federal authorities must develop strict immigration curbs designed to sharply reduce the inflow of immigrants who now make up between 23 and 27 percent of the population of eight million, the second-highest proportion in Europe (after Luxembourg).
Those who voted for the restrictions — put on the ballot by the right-leaning Peoples Party —deny racism or xenophobia in interviews and point instead to downward pressure on wages and overcrowding. Supporters of business lamented the looming inability to hire the best workers and experts from across Europe for successful companies like Nestle, Hoffmann-La Roche, Schindler Elevator and dozens of watch companies.
Switzerland is weak in one sense: the federal government is small and run by politicians who are little-known outside the country. But in another sense it is strong. A referendum is the expression of the nation-state and an example of direct democracy more potent than anywhere else on earth.
The result is significant for Switzerland and big for its neighbors. EU nationals — even in recession-hit Italy and relatively booming Germany — have looked for good jobs in the Alpine paradise. But most significantly, the Swiss have insisted on exercising sovereignty over their territory in an affirmation of self-determination that the EU has long wished to suppress.
Nigel Farage, leader of UK’s Independence Party, hailed the vote as “wonderful news for national sovereignty and freedom lovers throughout Europe,” saying it was “not a matter of race but of space.”
The result underlines the increasingly evident fact that Europe is in a turbulent time and that this political turbulence is likely to be prolonged. The EU has long pressed for its member nations to pass over the control of financial, economic and political levers to Brussels, and has more recently insisted that financial controls be centralized to cope efficiently with the euro crisis. But the groundswell of opinion against a centralized government with obscure workings that is administered by mostly unknown politicians is now felt in all states, including those thought to be impervious to anti-EU sentiment.
The referendum was designed to address the most neuralgic issue in Europe — the free movement of people within its borders. Europe has seen large-scale emigration from relatively poor east-central Europe to richer western and northern countries, as well as more desperate emigration from impoverished and war-torn states in Africa and the Middle East, much of this illegal.
More than any other issue, immigration drives a widening wedge between the political, business and intellectual elite in Europe and those in middle and working-class jobs who experience downward wage pressure and often live in areas unused to the social changes that immigration brings.
This discomfort has long been blamed on racism. But now thoughtful liberals are recognizing that something else is happening that is not so much a crisis of ethnic differences, but a crisis of the nation state.
The French political philosopher Pierre Manent is a central figure in the resurgence of the country’s liberal tradition. In a series of recent essays, he locates current turbulence in the widening gap between a nation state that is supposed to be consigned to the past and a European state that is proposed as the future. The European political class, he says, has assumed the responsibility of constructing a united Europe, but, in doing so, it has sought to discredit all opposition as reactionary.
“If this process continues — the financial crisis of the euro has put extraordinary pressure on it — we will soon leave behind the regime of representative government and return to one of speechless commandment,” he writes. “The commandment will no longer be that of the state, which at least occupied a place of a certain elevation, but that of regulations. We do not know the source of regulations — only that we must obey them.”
From an even more liberal quarter, Michael Ignatieff — former leader of the Canadian Liberal Party and now a scholar at Harvard – writes that “to a degree we haven’t realized, our sovereignty has been emptied out and because it has, our democracy has been draining away. Sovereignty and democracy are linked. We must feel we are masters in our own house, if our politics is to have any meaning for us. Democracy is not a procedure, an instrument or a technique. It is a way of living a set of values of patriotism, equality and fairness, and it creates a sentiment: the blessed feeling that you live in a place where you are not adrift, you are not a prisoner of fate, where you join with citizens to shape your world.”
Swiss voters have acted on Ignatieff’s dictum that “sovereignty and democracy are linked.” In doing so — and in insisting that their small country has too many foreigners — they have linked democracy and sovereignty to oppose the prevailing orthodoxy. The consequences of this will roil Europe for years to come.
PHOTO: Swiss President and Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter (R) talks to Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga after a news conference in Bern February 9, 2014. REUTERS/THOMAS HODEL