Brussels was breathing a sigh of relief today as the news of yesterday's Swiss referendum result reached people's desks. There had been some apprehension about the vote, which extends free-movement rules to new EU entrants Bulgaria and Romania, as opinion polls taken before the vote seemed to suggest that it would have a razor-thin margin. In the end, a massive 60 percent of voters said 'JA.' Only four of Switzerland's 26 cantons voted no.
The vote is being called a "broad yes" by the Swiss to economic collaboration with Europe, and a mandate for pro-European parties in the Swiss government to increase ties. The news is already being taken as a sign that the financial crisis may lead to a more receptive attitude toward the EU and coordinated pan-European policies. With the Irish revote on the Lisbon Treaty just around the corner, many in Brussels are hoping this is a trend that will continue. But is the vote's outcome the result of changing EU attitudes in the face of the financial crisis, or was it simply the result of a skillful vote mobilisation effort on the ground by pro-EU groups?
Switzerland has a rather unusual arrangement with the EU. While it's not a member, it has a series of seven 'special accords' with the block that make it effectively a shadow member. It isn't an official member, so it doesn't have any representation in the European Parliament or Commission, but the accords oblige Switzerland to follow many areas of EU legislation. Free movement, which allows any EU citizen to work in any EU country, is one of those areas. However, now that EU membership hassuch a change must be put to a public vote (they basically have to have a public vote for everything in Switzerland). But here's where it gets tricky. The EU has made clear that Switzerland doesn't have the right to 'pick and choose' which parts of EU law it will follow, and under the infamous "guillotine clause," if the Swiss voted no to extending free movement to Bulgaria and Romania, all of their agreements with the EU would be torn up. Considering that the vast majority of Switzerland's trade is with the EU, and that non-Swiss EU citizens make up a huge percentage of its skilled workforce, a collapse in the accords would be catastrophic for the country's economy. So one has to ask, is this really a vote for increased EU ties, or a desire to maintain the status quo? And if it's now economically impossible for the Swiss to vote against policies enacted in Brussels, isn't this really just an illusory independence anyway?
Switzerland's biggest political party, the rightist Swiss People's Party, had waged an aggressive ad campaign urging people to vote no, arguing that the two new EU entrants were too poor to be allowed unfettered access to Swiss jobs. (this photo is of one of their billboards that was on the street outside my parents' house). The issue was complicated by the fact that Switzerland has had a less than smooth history with immigration from the Balkans. During the 1990's the country took in many refugees from the former Yugoslavia as the Balkan wars raged on. Now the country has a sizable former Yugoslav population, particularly in Zurich, which hasn't integrated with the wider Swiss society and who treated with much hostility from the native Swiss population (complete with a nasty epithet that I won't repeat here). Many, particularly in German-speaking Switzerland, aren't crazy about the idea of taking in more immigrants from Serbia's neighbors in the Balkans.
A Sign of the Times?
So does the wide victory in Switzerland mean that people's fears about the financial crisis are going to make them less likely to snub the EU, for fear of the economic consequences? I've speculated that the economic turmoil in Ireland will likely make the Irish too scared to vote against the Lisbon Treaty again when the revote occurs later this year. It seems likely that the hold-up in approval by the Czech Parliament may also be resolved quickly now that the future looks so uncertain. On the other hand, many commentators have speculated that the recession could lead to an increase in populism and protectionism, which could put the European single market in jeopardy. The recent walk-outs in the UK and the one-day strike in France have certainly been a worrying sign in that direction.
For now though, Brussels has reason to be encouraged by the Swiss result.