For the last 25 years the Swiss have voted repeatedly on issues directly related to EU membership. Over this time all the votes were rigorously analysed by a specialized Institute. Not so long ago I attended a private briefing given by the Institute’s Director on the question “when will Switzerland accept to join the EU”. He answered: “Switzerland will join the EU at the time when it already will be part of it”. This was almost fifteen years ago. He was right then, and I am afraid he still is.
Switzerland is the only European country, where the electorate have voted by a comfortable majority on several occasions for the extension of the EU towards the central and eastern european countries. We pay every year hundred of millions of Euros to the EU Cohesion Fund that is supposed to help these countries to consolidate their acquis communautaire, and which allows our economy to be part of this new market. But if tomorrow we had to vote to become member of the EU, the ‘yes’ voices would not even reach 30% of the answer.
Switzerland has signed up to hundreds of bilateral contracts with the EU. We are part of the Schengen and Dublin agreements. More than ninety percent of all legislative work in our administration offices at the Federal and Cantonal level consists in adapting our laws and by-laws to the EU legislation. But still, the most virulent anti-EU and anti-foreigners political party is by far the strongest party in the country, reaching almost 30% of the votes at the last parliamentary elections this October.
We are fully part of the EU economical project, but pretend not to be. The Swiss government is almost as weak as the EU Commission. Our Federal State can do nothing without the consensus of the majority of the Cantons. Some say, Switzerland is a ‘small sized EU’.
Switzerland’s political and economical construction and success are grounded on a range of soft factors, like for instance: to avoid internal wars that will weaken the country overall and profit external powers; to downgrade the risks of ideological and religious conflicts through the decentralisation of powers and regulating them on the local level; to define joint interests of the main actors through compromise and bargaining in order to ensure a large political consensus on a small range of strategic issues. It is obvious that many of these factors look very much like EU policies and procedures.
Switzerland is located in the western part of the continent. It shares the history of this continent and took part in shaping it. It knows the price that was paid to get freedom and peace on the continent as well as inside Switzerland. And, the Swiss people do share the European values, the vision of a continent in peace with its neighbours and with itself. Switzerland is one of the founding states of the Council of Europe in 1949.
Switzerland cannot live without others. 25% of our population is of foreign citizenship. 35% of the families have a foreign background. 10% of its citizens live abroad. Swiss people travel a lot worldwide and are basically curious, liberal and tolerant. But still – they prefer not to take an additional risk and won’t give up their political rights and freedom, even if they share the same vision and even if they know that their freedom depends economically on the EU.
The Swiss are part of the European project, but they prefer not to admit it loudly and officially for the time being. Like you and me with Church attendance: believing, and even practicing (discretely), but not belonging. But when the day comes that the European project has been completed and functions, Switzerland will be among the first states to claim being a proud member.
About the author
Serge Fornerod is the Director of the Department of International Relations at the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches, Berne. He was the Moderator of the Church and Society Commission of the Conference of European Churches (201-2104). For 9 years he was a pastor with the Evangelical Reformed Church in the Swiss Canton of Vaud (1986-1995).