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February 12, 2014
February 12, 2014

European lessons from the recent Swiss referendum

Source: TVXS  Category: Letters from home
This article is also available in: eles
European lessons from the recent Swiss referendum

Open the door to abuses?

“The Swiss referendum on imposing restrictions on the massive influx of migrants offers two hard but good lessons”

1. The first ones goes to the European Union: Switzerland, with the decision of the weak majority of its people, decided to behave towards the European Union in a way similar to the way the EU, under the European Pact on Immigration and Asylum, behaves towards the surrounding countries. It is the European Pact on Immigration and Asylum which, basically, puts barriers to the EU external borders for people from third countries (and secondarily the Dublin II which gave way to Dublin III, from the beginning of 2014). So, Switzerland decided to impose restrictions to the EU for the very same reason for which the EU has closed its outside borders. Because it feels surrounded by poorer countries, whose populations, given the impact of the economic crisis and the intensification of inequality, will increasingly want to migrate to a rich country. The conditions in the European South –starting with Greece–, the consolidation of social dislocation and economic hardship in a number of new member states –the first being, of course, Bulgaria and Romania– and the impoverishment of other societies, all this is bad news for rich Switzerland. This is the reason why it starts closing its borders, with the most conservative German-speaking cantons and, of course, its extreme right playing a key role.

The EU protests are reasonable, but not convincing. The EU cannot demand from Switzerland a better treatment than the one it reserves for its own neighbours: that is, looking at the map under this perspective, Switzerland is for the European Union what the EU is for its surrounding countries. Which means, the lesson to be taken by the EU is that it is the one who showed the way to the Swiss far right and if it does not change its minds regarding the management of the migration problem, it will have absolutely no legitimate ground to claim a better behaviour from Switzerland today, Norway tomorrow and so on. Someone might say “But politics has nothing to do with any legitimate grounds, it’s only interests” and I would partly agree. However, when you show your poor neighbour your ugliest face, then you should not be surprised when your rich neighbour does the same to you. As you become poorer and the inequality increases, then the rich neighbour will behave in an even more inappropriate way.

2. The second lesson concerns the logic of the referenda, popular even among the Left. Under this concept, direct democracy is better than representative democracy because people decide without any mediation etc… I find this approach dangerously naïve. While referenda are necessary on marginal questions, where a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ can, indeed, determine critical state or political issues, they are not for everyday use. By definition, referenda simplify complex dilemmas that are not easily answered affirmatively or negatively with only one word. Also, referenda actually shrink the margins of prior consultation and political participation, as through them all is reduced to a critical dominant adjudication of the people. Referenda are needed as a last resort, but with much moderation and caution. The principle of representation is the essence of democracy.

For the record, in 1971, through a referendum, the male Swiss population decided, eventually, to grant voting rights to the women of Switzerland. In this way and with a ratio of 2 to 1 (66% against 34%), the women in the richest country in Europe acquired, with a delay of decades, the right to political participation (after a failed attempt back in 1959, when the results were reverse) while even today there are still a few cantons in central and eastern Switzerland resisting democratically this progress.

These are the lessons that I see emerging from the recent experience of Switzerland. Lessons for both the Right and the Left.

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