New groups with strong financial backing have emerged to try to break the deadlock over Switzerland’s future with the European Union. The billionaire figurehead of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party says he is not concerned.
The creation of the two pro-European movements, Switzerland in Europe and Operation Libero, comes in the aftermath of Swiss voters’ decision to re-introduce immigration quotas, defying the free movement of people principle which is a central pillar of the EU.
Political scientist Georg Lutz from the University of Lausanne describes their appearance as a “wake up call, a turning point in the intellectual debate about Europe”. Newspapers say their formation marks the beginning of a showdown between isolationists and liberal political forces.
Some commentators even believe they could ultimately mark the battle lines on the domestic political scene for the next few years, although the dust is still settling following a ballot box upset eight months ago.
Mark Balsiger, political advisor and author, agrees that the arrival of the two separate movements is an important moment. “It is not a coincidence. It took a while, but we’re 12 months away from parliamentary elections and ahead of another vote on immigration caps,” he says.
“So far the liberal camp has been a motley crew, acting a bit like a headless chicken.”
The mere presence of the new groups will hardly transform the political scene. Even if, almost simultaneously, one of Switzerland’s wealthiest businessmen, Hansjörg Wyss, pledged his financial support for a campaign to counter the isolationists.
“Wyss has a made a start, but now others will have to take over from him. He is a fresh name on the scene. I expect the business community to at least acknowledge his efforts,” says Balsiger. “They should also get him on board to see what can be achieved together.”
Staying away from the media limelight in the past, United States-based multi-billionaire Wyss, former chairman of a US-Swiss medical device manufacturer, Synthes, broke his silence at the beginning of the month, launching a verbal attack against leading anti-EU representatives.
Lutz points out that the leaders of Swiss universities have also entered the fray. They became the first victims after the vote on immigration curbs, when the EU froze out Switzerland from research and student exchange programmes.
The universities are concerned that another vote in November on strict immigration limits for ecological reasons (the Ecopop initiative) could cause even more damage to Switzerland’s research and science community.
“A new quality has been added to the debate after 20 years of muddling through with bilateral treaties,” says Lutz, agreeing with Balsiger that at some point all the various players will have to stand shoulder-to-shoulder.
The group Switzerland in Europe is made up of figures from politics, business and science. It includes former cabinet ministers, central bankers, federal judges, senior government officials as well as representatives from universities, major companies and a Swiss astronaut.
The profile of the Operation Libero group seems to complement Switzerland in Europe: using social media, the young academics aim to make themselves heard in the debate about Europe.
At a news conference, members attacked the political establishment of not taking a clear stance for fear of being rejected by voters. Their political agenda is not limited to EU relations. It includes citizenship and family issues, tax breaks for low-salary earners as well as a traffic user-based funding system.
Both movements share a common goal of fostering a broad discussion about Switzerland’s position in Europe. They remain vague about whether the current policy of bilateral treaties or full Swiss membership in the EU is their priority.
The Switzerland in Europe group comprises figures from the world of politics, business and universities. Many of them held high government posts and are from the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Several of them are also members of the Club Helvétique, a forum set up in 2005 to defend what it describes as democratic and federalist state institutions and fight for a humanitarian and open Switzerland according to social-liberal values.
Operation Libero is a movement of young academics with links to the Foraus think tank. Its platform includes a broad range of issues for a liberal society. Other pro-European pressure groups include the New European Movement which was founded in 1998. The anti-EU camp is led by Blocher’s committee, No to gradual EU membership. The Campaign for a Neutral and Independent Switzerland group was also founded by Blocher in 1986. Its first aim was to oppose plans for Switzerland’s membership of the United Nations.
“We’re not targeting specific political action but a level of debate,” Benedikt von Tscharner, former ambassador and a leading member of a pro-European manifesto, said in the Le Temps newspaper.
Lutz credits both groups for trying to end a political paralysis, breaking the agenda-setting of the Swiss People’s Party. “For years, the rightwingers have dominated the discussion about relations with Europe and the issue has become almost a taboo,” he says.
The strategy is risky, he acknowledges, as it might benefit Blocher, who needs an opponent he can attack publicly to the delight of his supporters.
Nevertheless, Lutz believes it is significant for pro-Europeans to have the financial backing of Wyss, a role Blocher has been playing for the isolationists. “The People’s Party might now have lost its privilege of being the only political party in Switzerland which can count on the funds of a supporter to cover its deficits.”
But 74-year-old former justice minister Blocher does not seem overly concerned by the new movements. In an interview with the Basler Zeitung, which he partly owns, he denounced the Switzerland in Europe group.
“It made me laugh out loud. It is not credible if such people [former cabinet ministers Micheline Calmy-Rey and Pascal Couchepin] push for treaties with the EU which allegedly do not lead towards EU membership.”
He also downplayed the promised financial support by Wyss. “The fact is that the pro-Europeans who advocate for the free movement of people have never been short of money. I hope they don’t think they can buy the support of the people?”
Blocher, himself an entrepreneur and multi-billionaire, has made it his stated aim to fight tooth and nail against what he considers Swiss membership in the EU through the backdoor and subsequent loss of national sovereignty.
Another big name, Jakob Kellenberger, has stepped into the debate. In an opinion piece in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper, Kellenberger pleaded for calm and a realistic approach in discussions over the future of EU relations.
The former state secretary in the foreign ministry and chief negotiator of the first set of bilateral treaties with the EU has also just published a book on Switzerland’s relations with the 28-nation bloc.
“The controversy with the EU and a possible – but by no means definite – membership at a later point is also a test for the culture of tolerance and freedom of speech. It is not exactly new to state that both values would suffer in a climate of intimidation.”
Without naming names, Kellenberger, a former president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), accuses “influential circles” of blocking an ideology-free approach towards the EU.
“It is astonishing to see how successful the method has been so far of digging an emotional trench as deep as possible between the EU and Switzerland,” he says.
Switzerland and Europe
Switzerland is not a member of the EU, but more than 120 major bilateral treaties define relations between the two sides. In 1992, voters narrowly rejected the European Economic Area (EEA) treaty, a halfway house to full EU membership. The government says it has abandoned its long-term policy aim of EU membership. Its relations with Brussels are based on bilateral accords.
The policy of bilateral accords has been blocked following voters’ approval in February 2014 of an initiative by the rightwing Swiss People’s Party to re-introduce immigration quotas. Brussels has also been pushing for a framework agreement with Switzerland, bringing together the existing treaties under a single institutional roof.
Proposals to unblock the situation include a re-negotiation of key bilateral treaties, a second vote on the immigration caps or the EEA accord.