Monday, 29 November 2010

Is Switzerland becoming the black sheep of Europe?

 The Swiss People's Party may have scored another victory yesterday in their campaign against the "black sheep" within Swiss society, but judging by the reaction of the European press today it may be the Swiss themselves who are becoming the real black sheep. In a referendum held Sunday, 53% of the Swiss endorsed a far-right initiative to automatically expel foreign residents who have committed a crime, following their time served in a Swiss prison.

According to the AFP, Austrian website announced the news with the headline, "Switzerland is now the black sheep -- majority for tougher rules against foreigers." The headline is a reference to the notorious advertising used by the far-right Swiss People's Party (SVP) showing a group of white sheep kicking a black sheep out of Switzerland. The imagery, which helped propel the SVP to a huge election win in 2007, was again brought out in the SVP's campaign for the expulsion initiative (but this time with a new twist, one of the white sheep has been stabbed!). The Austrian press wasn't the only one criticising the referendum outcome. Belgian newspaper Le Soir noted today that the Swiss are increasingly choosing a "radical road". German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung wrote that once again Switzerland is "sending a signal to the world that it doesn't care what others think of it." Many of the papers are noting that the vote comes exactly one year after the Swiss voted to ban minarets on mosques.

Now at first glance, one might ask, "What's the big deal if Switzerland wants to deport foreigners who have committed serious crimes? Isn't that a logical decision?" Like many of the SVP positions, this argument might be tempting to follow in its simplicity. But if the issue is so cut and dry, why did nearly half of Swiss people vote against it? The reality is that there are two big problems with this initiative. One is that such a law would directly violate one of the seven bilateral accords Switzerland has with the EU, which guarantees the right of free movement for EU citizens in Switzerland (and vice versa). The way the bilateral accords work is that they make Switzerland a sort of 'stealth' EU member, where they have to follow the majority of EU law.

The accords can be canceled by either side at any time but they can't be canceled one by one. If Switzerland breaks one accord, all of them become null and void. This would throw the country into a diplomatic and economic crisis as it is dependent on these accords for its external trade. So now all eyes are on Brussels to see how the commission will react to this decision, and all eyes are on Bern to see how they propose turning it into an actual law. Le Soir noted today that with Sunday's vote, "the Swiss have once again slapped the EU in the face." Many papers in Europe wrote today that if Bern chooses to apply this law to EU citizens it will have broken the accord on free movement and Brussels should react by threatening to tear up up all the bilateral accords. The country was facing the potential for this back in 2009 when they held a referendum over whether Bulgarians and Romanians should be allowed free movement in Switzerland. Despite an aggressive campaign by the SVP, the Swiss ended up saying 'yes' in that referendum. But it was a rather bizarre thing to put to a vote in the first place since Switzerland had already committed to allow the new EU entrants into the country. So the 2009 referendum question was essentially, "Should Switzerland honour its international commitments?"

The other big problem with the initiative is that the proportion of Swiss residents who are not Swiss citizens is huge (almost a quarter of the country), because it is nearly impossible for people to acquire Swiss citizenship. I know several people who were born in Switzerland, grew up there and have lived there all their lives - but still don't have Swiss citizenship because their parents are from Italy or Germany. So under this law if one of my friends was convicted of a crime, after he served his time in jail he would be deported to a country he has never actually lived in - he would be forbidden from re-entering Switzerland, his home country, for 20 years. The problem with this initiative is that many of the 'foreigners' in Switzerland are not really foreigners at all, but rather full members of Swiss society who just don't have a much-coveted but impossible-to-get Swiss passport.

So far I haven't heard anything from the commission on how they plan to react to the vote, I'm not sure if it came up in today's midday briefing because I wasn't there. I imagine at this stage the commission will say it is a situation they are watching closely and they are waiting to see how Bern decides to transpose this initiative into an actual law. But the signal this has sent to the rest of Europe, and to the rest of the world, is undeniably negative. It also demonstrates how powerful the far right has become in Switzerland through their ability to easily influence people through simplistic slogans in the country's many, many referendums.

Much of the Swiss media was bemoaning this fact today. According to the AFP, Geneva newspaper Le Matin wrote that the SVP has become a "war machine, with a perfect propaganda service, incomparable financial means, dedicated politicians and simplistic but terribly efficient messages." And the Swiss-German newspaper TagesAnzeiger wrote, "Switzerland will not make new friends with this 'yes' -- other than with the populist right circles of Europe." That reaction has already been seen, with the far right separatist Northern League party in Italy already cheering the vote today, and congratulations expected to pour in from the British BNP, Swedish SD and Dutch PVV.

If Switzerland continues in this direction it may be on the road toward a real confrontation with Brussels. And if the EU decides to take a hard line against Swiss violations of the bilateral accords, the Swiss could find that they themselves have become the 'black sheep' being kicked out of the European club.


Captain Kid said...

I hope there will be a tough reaction coming from brussels (unlike what they did with france...). If switzerland wants to have this kind of society, then let them face the consequences.

Anonymous said...

A foreign who has comited a crime should be expelled from the country they are a guest in. If you commit a crime, a crounty should not welcome you back after jail so you can commit another crime. They must be expelled back to where they belong.

Captain Kid said...

goodbye, human rights.

Johanna said...

Once again I have been left so shocked by how my country has voted. First the minarets, now this. It is quite embarassing to be Swiss these days.