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Switzerland Isn't Neutral, It's Torn In Two

A national referendum to limit new immigrants shows Swiss society split along political, geographic and linguistic lines. It also leaves the nation isolated from its EU neighbors.

A German-language 'Yes' poster
A German-language 'Yes' poster
Pierre Veya


GENEVA — A narrow majority of the Swiss population has imposed a serious change of policy on all of Switzerland. The country finds itself divided in two after Sunday's national referendum to put new limits on immigration was approved by a slim majority of voters.

There is the French-speaking West that finds itself in the minority, alongside urban pockets, even though they are the ones more exposed to human migration than the rural, German-speaking parts.

This clearly means a portion of this country is scared about the ongoing evolution and decided to say “stop” to the free movement of people with our main neighbors. There was also support for the referendum in the southernmost and Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, which has felt abandoned by the national government for too long.

The border regions (except for the cantons of Schaffhausen and Basel-Landschaft) did not believe the hysterical rhetoric about overpopulation and lower wages that was put forward these last few weeks.

But the relative serenity there, and in French-speaking areas, was not enough. The promoters of the initiative achieved their main objective: cast a general doubt over the benefits of the freedom of movement.

But beyond a lost campaign, questions need to be asked on the lessons and the consequences of such a vote. Switzerland is probably one of the most internationalized countries in the world, that rare nation-state that is both globalized and efficient, some might even say cunning.

Insecurity and populism

A majority of the population, particularly rural Switzerland, evidently feels insecure. It no longer understands the logic of commercial exchanges and seems to only see its negative aspects, which appear in periods of strong growth.

By voting yes with the SVP the Swiss People's Party, the largest in the Federal Assembly, many people thought — quite naively — that they simply chose to regain control of immigration, and not that they took part in a political vote that threatens our entire relationship with Europe.

This blindness on what was really at stake with this vote is particularly troubling in German-speaking Switzerland. In this part of the country, the European Union is an “enemy,” a subject of mockery, including in the economic circles that are known to be Europhobic by principle.

Didier Burkhalter, the current President of the Swiss Confederation, and his colleagues in Switzerland's executive body, must now measure the extent of the brutal cost they have paid at the ballot boxes for leaving the European question aside for too long.

The consequences of this vote will be serious. It will no longer be a question of recharging the bilateral relations with the EU, but this time, if possible, of saving it. In concrete terms, the Federal Council will have to wait for the European Commission’s verdict on the immigration question, and will suffer reproaches from the 27 EU members.

A new Switzerland-EU that had been in sight has just been destroyed by an SVP party that has power without the responsibilities.

This situation is intolerable. The SVP is no longer a party of governance, but of opposition, and must be treated as such. Swiss business circles must cease making alliances with a partner that violates the very essence of economic liberalism.

The Swiss political system requires the precision and balance of the finest watchmaking; it can no longer bear the double dealing of a populist party that turns its nose up at this country’s strategic interests.

A new political balance in Switzerland is needed. With this latest initiative, the SVP has stepped over a red line. Those who believe in the benefits of free trade must unite and stand up to this form of nationalism and protectionism that is leading us straight into a wall. The people have chosen, but they are not (always) right!

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