Geneva, Switzerland. 10 February. Genevois philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau once wrote “Free people, remember this maxim; we may acquire liberty, but it is never recovered if it is once lost”. As I write this I am looking over stately Geneva as it embraces Lac Leman under a grey dappled sky. Yesterday, exercising the right of direct democracy the Swiss people here voted by a margin of 50.3% to 49.7% to re-introduce curbs on the free movement of peoples agreed a decade ago with the EU. The implications are profound because the vote is really about who gets to decide and where.
The vote now instructs the Swiss Government to re-introduce immigration quotas, to limit rights to asylum and to restrict the rights of families of foreign workers to live in Switzerland. Swiss citizens must again be considered for work before a foreign national. The motivations of those who voted for the break with the EU, for that is what it is, were motivated by factors felt deeply by people in many EU member-states; the destruction of identity and social cohesion by hyper-immigration and the under-cutting of labour markets.
Why does the vote matter? Switzerland unlike the UK is part of the so-called borderless Schengen Area, which is at the very heart of the principle which underpins the EU; the free movement of people under Article 3c of the 1957 Treaty of Rome. By voting to end unfettered free movement between Switzerland and the EU the Swiss are in effect voting to leave Schengen. And, by so doing they have established a principle of popular rejectionism that will resonate across Europe.
How Brussels responds could decide the future direction of the EU. At its heart is a fundamental issue of democracy and the relationship between the people of a state and their obligations under treaties signed on their behalf with an EU that is slowly morphing from international institution into a form of government. To that end by transferring power through treaty from a state to EU institutions the importance and influence of the national voter has been progressively diluted. The Swiss yesterday effectively said enough.
Brussels counters that by saying the European Parliament exists to prevent a democratic deficit because as a directly-elected chamber it provides effective political oversight. For the Swiss that is irrelevant because they are not a member-state and have no members in the European Parliament. Even for the citizenry of the EU the Parliament is regarded as an illegitimate talk-shop for over-funded and by and large irrelevant minor politicians for whom only a very few Europeans ever bother to vote.
No doubt hushed conversations will already be taking place between Bern and Brussels over the need for a second referendum at some as yet unspecified date to give the Swiss people the chance to get the answer ‘right’. However, if those who run the EU are intelligent they will stop and pause as to the reasons why the Swiss people voted the way that they did and accept that the EU is truly at a crossroads between more or less ‘Europe’.
To do that Brussels must come down from Mount Olympus and start to listen. Everywhere I go I hear the same message from perfectly decent thinking and frustrated people. The EU is a distant power that imposes itself on me. The EU is forcing unwanted change on my society and threatening my culture. The EU makes me poorer, more insecure and less free. The EU never listens to me. The EU is only for the powerful. It is not my EU.
Now, I have just spent the weekend with a close friend of mine who is a senior Commission official based here in Geneva. He objects to much of this and even the idea that a European elite exists. My assertion as such is simply a factually incorrect cliché. To my mind such views just reinforce the gulf that exists between millions of citizens and those perfectly decent but detached people who spend their lives in the Brussels institutions.
The Swiss may indeed be a special case but the reasons for the vote are not. If the Swiss are treated with respect and some adjustment made to their relationship with the EU acceptable to the people then some power will at least have been reinvested in them. If the Swiss are made an example of as a lesson to the British and others about the price of dissent then Europe is on the rocky, downhill Swiss alpine road away from liberty.
Swiss Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said, “This has far-reaching consequences for Switzerland…and our relations with the European Union”. The consequences go far beyond that. Once, just for once, it would be good to see those in power be it in Brussels or EU member-states asking themselves why the people feel as do they rather than tell them yet again they have simply got it wrong.
It is called democracy.