What can we learn from the Swiss?

In a referendum in 2014, Switzerland voted to introduce immigration quotas by the slimmest of majorities threatening the countries relationship with the EU. After two years of negotiation, in 2016, the Swiss parliament chose to compromise and introduced a series of soft measures in order to maintain trading arrangements. Given the parallels with Brexit, I ask what we can learn from recent events.

Last summer, I stopped in Geneva for a few days. I’d decided to visit Switzerland because while it is in Europe it is not a member of the EU and thought it might provide some insight into the UK’s ‘future relationship’ after Brexit. On my first day, I set about approaching people to interview about their views on Europe, but struggled to find many Swiss there. Instead I talked to people from the Philippines, Brazil, Mexico, France, Spain, Russia and the UK. They were in Geneva for a variety of reasons, some had dual nationality, others had moved for work, for love, and to study. This initial impression led me to the conclusion that non-membership of the EU had little bearing on immigration, one of the primary reasons people voted to leave in the UK.

Of course, having not done adequate research before I left, what I hadn’t realised is that although not a full member, Switzerland has a series of bilateral treaties with the EU which allow it to participate in the single market and is also a member of the Schengen area.

Later, I also discovered that Switzerland had been through its own constitutional crisis, not dissimilar from the chaos unleashed by Brexit. In 2014, in a referendum led by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) 50.3% of the population voted to introduce immigration quotas, threatening Switzerland’s relationship with the EU, and unlike the referendum result the vote was legally binding.[1]

The government had three years to figure out its implementation. The problem they faced was that they couldn’t back out of one EU agreement without terminating all others. The democratic vote to introduce quotas had subsequently put the countries trading partnership at risk.

During the negotiation period, the UK referendum result complicated talks. Fearing a compromise with Switzerland would weaken its stance in the future Brussels refused to back down on its position that any attempt to restrict free movement would automatically exclude Switzerland from the single market.

The choice the Swiss parliament faced was to introduce immigration quotas and lose its privileged trading relationship with the EU, or upset democracy by overturning the referendum result.

After nearly two years of deliberation and talks, during which Switzerland was removed from the EU’s science research programme and the Erasmus student exchange, in December 2016 the government decided to reject quotas to maintain its close ties with Europe. Introducing instead, a series of soft measures (to privilege the employment prospects of unemployed locals) without violating the free movement of people accord.

Reading about the compromise reached, which incidentally had sparse coverage in the media here, gave me hope the Swiss case might provide an example of how the British government could negotiate a deal which neither jeopardised jobs and rights secured through the EU, nor introduced more strident border controls than those already in place (unlike Switzerland the UK is not a member of the Schengen Agreement although it is currently signed up to the free movement of labour). I also thought it might give some insight into how this could be achieved while keeping a divided population on side.

Researching subsequent events, I was disheartened to discover however, that in January 2018 the SVP launched a new vote to limit immigration and began collecting the 100,000 signatures required to instigate another referendum. In so doing, once again the SVP were prepared to forfeit Switzerland’s relationship with the EU. Their justification for doing so was that the government’s implementation of the 2014 result had been unfaithful to the will of the people. A questionable, and it is alleged here populist claim given that just over half of those who voted originally supported quotas.[2]  Nevertheless, this summer the SVP president Albert Rösti announced that 125,000 signatures backing the new anti-freedom of movement initiative had been collected. It is expected that the party will submit its application for a referendum this month.

So what did I learn by looking at the Swiss case and what relevance does it have to Brexit and politics in the UK? My discovery of the SVP’s inexorable determination to end the free movement of people in Switzerland has gloomily led me to believe that those in the UK who are for nationalism and protectionism, against the EU and immigration, are unlikely to give up until they get their way. That, if Theresa May manages to negotiate a deal, which bears any semblance of compromise, those politicians who support and advocate a hard Brexit, either for ideological reasons or in pursuit of personal political ambition, will claim de facto that it is a betrayal of the will of the British people, regardless of whether it has any benefits.

[1] The Swiss People’s Party (SVP) is the largest party in the national assembly. It promotes national conservatism and is opposed to mass migration. In 2009 it masterminded a contentious referendum to ban the construction of minarets on mosques in Switzerland.

[2] For a definition of populism head to https://www.theoutsider.blog/outsider-opinions/2018/1/18/what-is-populism