Wolfgang Streeck – Switzerland and its relationship with the European Union

The EU has once again failed to impose its political will upon a sovereign nation.

Wolfgang Streeck is the Emeritus Director of Director the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne, Germany

Cross-posted from El Salto (in Spanish)

Translated and edited by BRAVE NEW EUROPE

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On 26 May, the Swiss government ended the year-long negotiations with the European Union on the so-called Institutional Framework Agreement, which was to consolidate and expand the hundred or so bilateral agreements currently in place to regulate relations between the two sides.

Negotiations began in 2014 and were concluded four years later, but Swiss domestic opposition hindered their ratification. In the years that followed, Switzerland sought assurances primarily in four areas: permission to continue providing assistance to its huge and flourishing export sector; immigration and the right to limit it to those who were workers rather than having to admit all EU member state nationals; protection of (high) wages in Switzerland’s highly successful export sector; and the jurisdiction, demanded by the EU, of the European Court of Justice over legal disputes over the interpretation of the joint treaties.

As no progress was made, the prevailing impression in Switzerland was that the framework agreement was in fact a domination agreement and as such too close to EU membership, something that the Swiss had already rejected in a national referendum in 1992, when they voted against joining the European Economic Area.

There are interesting parallels with the United Kingdom and Brexit. Both countries, in specifically different ways, have developed variants of democracy characterised by a deep respect for a particular kind of majority popular sovereignty, which demands national sovereignty, making it difficult for both to engage in external relations that constrain the formation of the collective will of their citizenry.

Britain, of course, partially solved this problem by becoming the centre of one empire rather than being included in another, defending its national sovereignty by appropriating the national sovereignty of others, while Switzerland became a perennially neutral country willing to defend itself, as de Gaulle had said of France, tous les azimutes.

Constitutionally, British popular sovereignty resides in a Parliament which is not constrained by a written constitution and can therefore decide on any matter by a simple majority, without the need for any two-thirds majority of the votes in the chamber or any other parliamentary supermajority. Moreover, there is no Constitutional Court that can stand in the way of Parliament, nor can the second chamber, the House of Lords.

The fact that a supreme court such as the Court of Justice of the European Union enjoys the power to impose itself on the British Parliament was always fundamentally incompatible with the British idea of popular democracy linked to sovereignty, becoming the main source of popular discontent with the EU, leading to Brexit and the unravelling of Brentry.

Similarly, that a foreign court with foreign judges was empowered to overturn a majority of the Swiss people proved incompatible with the Swiss idea of democracy, which hindered the Swentry and thus prevented a possible future Swexit. Obviously, Switzerland is a much smaller country than Britain and its national parliament has virtually no say.

,Whereas Britain is a highly centralised state, notwithstanding half-hearted, asymmetrical faux-federal devolution of governmental powers to three quasi-states, Switzerland, with its 8.7 million inhabitants, is a confederation of twenty-six cantons enjoying original rights of self-government and having a powerful voice at the federal level.

On the other hand, the Swiss government, in something that is like the opposite extreme of Westminster democracy, has since 1959 been an Allparteienregierung, which has included the four major parties represented in parliament, with the president of the government rotating annually among them, which is why no one knows the name of the Swiss prime minister. The technical term for such a government is Konkordanzdemokratie (consociational democracy). In this case, popular democracy is verified by the established practice of plebiscites on virtually all issues that arise at municipal, cantonal and national level, which are binding on any government in power.

Add to this the communal exercises of direct democracy in which, in some cantons, even the local government budget is voted in a face-to-face citizens’ assembly, and we have the full flavour of the popular, even populist, nature of Swiss democracy: a strong anti-hierarchical political culture when it comes to collective affairs, a deeply rooted sense of popular autonomy and, equally, a deep suspicion of anyone who claims to know what is in the interest of the Swiss people better than the Swiss people themselves in their democratic wisdom.

So where does the EU come in? In both countries, a strange coalition of export-oriented manufacturing industries and the new class of the liberal left, or left-liberals, are drawn to the European Union to stay in or join it, respectively.

In Britain, that coalition was strengthened by a section of the trade union movement, which hoped to gain protection from Brussels against a furiously conservative parliamentary majority in Westminster, and for reasons not entirely understandable given the EU’s pitiful implementation of its social policies.

In Switzerland, by contrast, and to the surprise of those who enjoy their anti-Swiss stereotypes, the trade unions, still operating in the metal sector under the 1937 Peace Agreement, had sufficient domestic, industrial and political power to oppose entry into the European Union, which, as they rightly feared, would put downward pressure on their high wages. This made them allies of the well-organised and politically powerful small business sector, whose prosperity is protected by a public industrial policy – in EU jargon: “state aid” – that would be largely illegal under European competition law.

On the other hand, in Switzerland, as in the United Kingdom, the “European project” is a favourite of left-liberals, so that supporters of Swiss membership of the European Union share a deep suspicion of the popular majority policy with supporters of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union.

The Swiss liberal left claims that Swiss democracy is too slow, too localist, too provincial – in other words, too Swiss – compared to the European institutions, which are protected against the whims of citizen participation and firmly in the hands of a “cosmopolitan” elite of university-educated experts.

Of course, this ignores the fact that Swiss policy has produced some of the best infrastructure in the world, with a legendary public transport system and some of the best universities in the world.

Swiss policy also enabled the country to undertake major civil engineering projects of European importance, such as the Gotthard Base Tunnel – approved by referendum and completed on time and under budget – which forms part of the rail link between Rotterdam and Geneva. In the best European spirit, the Swiss consigned the tunnel to international cooperation without any need for international hierarchy, only to discover that the German part of the project, the planned rail route along the Rhine connecting the port of Rotterdam to the tunnel, is decades behind schedule, despite its membership of the European Union.

If the Swiss middle class wants to be governed by Brussels bureaucrats rather than by their fellow Swiss citizens, it is more a question of guilt over their national prosperity or the internalisation of anti-Swiss sentiments, and then it is likely that such a desire has to do with the fact that the plebiscitary confederal government allows multiple niches and spaces for populist traditionalism, a kind of “diversity”, which is in sharp contrast to the “diverse” values and lifestyles of the liberal left.

This can sometimes be embarrassing, as for example when recalling the fact that Switzerland waited until 1971 – and in some cantons even longer – to grant full suffrage rights to women. Sentiments such as those expressed by the Greens in Germany during the 1990s through their slogan “Dear foreigners, don’t leave us alone with the Germans” are widespread in Swiss society today, especially in the cultural sector.

Indeed, a staggering number of Swiss cultural workers have emigrated to bohemian places like Berlin, where unlike Zurich they can find a venue like the Berghain, in an effort to escape the puritanical narrowness and even xenophobia of their home country. A country, of course, that has an estimated 1.5 million foreign workers in all sectors of the economy, which employs 4.2 million workers, including 340,000 who commute to Switzerland every day from Germany, France and Italy.

In Brussels, the Swiss dossier was in the portfolio of Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, who inherited it from her predecessor, the now forgotten Jean-Claude Juncker. Her failure to make Switzerland capitulate further weakens her position, revealing once again the fracture lines of a one-size-fits-all “growing union”.

Under pressure from the imperialist-centralist hardliners in the EU Parliament – and presumably also from the German and French national governments – the Commission is now threatening Switzerland with revenge.

Many of the existing treaties signed between the EU and Switzerland will expire over the next few years and will have to be renewed; others will have to be updated. The European bureaucracy has warned the Swiss that without a Framework Agreement, this will be difficult and sometimes impossible, which will cost them dearly.

Less diplomatically, integrationists, frustrated by the Swiss refusal to go down the path of imperial unification of “Europe” under the aegis of German and French hegemony, publicly speculate on whether the Swiss are evil or mad: evil, since they are selfishly obsessed with keeping their wealth for themselves rather than sharing it with deserving Europeans as, of course, the Germans and French routinely do (the Commission rejected (!!!) an offer made at the last European Council (!!!) that they would be willing to share their wealth with Europeans who deserve it. ) an offer made at the last minute by the Swiss delegation to contribute 1.3 billion euros over a ten-year period to help alleviate economic and social inequality within the European Union) or mad, in the sense that they are incapable of recognising their true interests, which obviously include being governed by the good sense of the Commission and the European Court of Justice.

At the same time, the Swiss are sometimes accused of wanting to be too clever, trying to impose their “predilections and whims”, something that children should never be allowed to do, as they must learn to eat what is put on the table. If the “European project” is to move forward as defined by the centralists in Brussels, it must be made clear to everyone involved in it that confederal, bilateral or multilateral cooperation, as an alternative to hierarchical domination, is not a feasible possibility in Europe, as was made clear to the English, lest other countries, including those who are already members, get stupid ideas.

Of course, the Swiss, in their seven hundred long years of history, have survived more imposing challenges, as have the English since the Magna Carta, and there is good reason to believe that they will do so this time too and that, in a much shorter period of time, they will survive the Frankensteinian neo-liberal and mercantile-technocratic construction called the European Union.

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