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The people’s rights in an era of globalisation


Conservatives want every major international treaty to be put to a popular vote before being signed by the government. They are worried that Switzerland is relinquishing too much power over sovereign issues.

In Switzerland, the government is answerable for foreign policy decisions not only to parliament, but also to the people and the cantons. All international treaties with important implications for the country, such as the enactment of new laws, can be put to a nationwide vote if at least 50,000 citizens or eight cantons so demand it. A referendum is automatically triggered where the treaty involves joining a supra-national organisation or a security partnership.

But these instruments of direct democracy do not go far enough for conservatives. Supported by the Swiss People’s Party, the lobby group Campaign for a Neutral and Independent Switzerland launched an initiative in 2009 to “strengthen the people’s rights as regards foreign policy”. The text, to be put to a vote on June 17, demands that all treaties of a specified level of importance should be automatically submitted to referendum (see sidebar).

No new concessions

In a globalised world, Switzerland is continually called upon to conclude international treaties and foreign policy decisions are more likely to have implications for internal policy, and thus for the ordinary citizen. The people should be able to express their views more easily on these matters, without the rigmarole of having to collect at least 50,000 signatures, say advocates of the initiative.

Activists on the right do not hide their wariness of the choices made by government and the parliament, which they deem as too often caving in to external pressures. Now nationalists and the People’s Party want to forestall any new concessions, particularly to the European Union.

Opponents of the initiative, those at the centre and left of the political spectrum, see the proposal as superfluous given that direct democracy already gives the people a mechanism to express their views on major international treaties. If accepted, the initiative would increase the number of votes held, slow down foreign policy decision-making and complicate negotiations with other countries which would harm the interests of Switzerland, they say.

Overestimating Swiss importance?

With an extension of citizen rights, conservatives hope to be able to better defend Swiss sovereignty, but some experts suggest that direct democracy in a globalised world seems to be reaching its limits.

Interdependence between countries is increasing and the problems to be solved – like climate change, migration and terrorism – more often go beyond national borders. Many important decisions can therefore only be made at an international level.

“Citizens’ rights are fundamental for Switzerland,” says Georg Lutz, a political scientist at Lausanne University. “But I believe that the right wing is overestimating these rights and the clout our country has on the international scene. Switzerland is very well integrated at a world level. We can continue to regard ourselves as highly independent if we like, but in point of fact, there is little of that independence left.”

“We need to see that our sovereignty is now quite reduced in scope,” agrees Dieter Freiburghaus, a specialist in European relations. “We are continually adopting European norms. We cannot be part of the EU’s internal market which is vital for our economy and remain completely sovereign. The question of sovereignty is becoming more and more academic.”

Central battleground

The initiative has reignited the debate whether Switzerland should be more open to, or closed off from, the outside world, which has dominated Swiss politics for the last two decades. In no other European country are the questions of relations with the outside world and foreigners so often in the news. Since 2000, about 20 national votes have been held on topics involving foreign policy and immigration, mainly pushed by the political right.

“In Switzerland the issue of foreigners and the outside world has become the central battleground, rather than the issue of the redistribution of wealth – social insurance, taxation, jobs – which prevails in other countries. On these topics, thanks to good economic performance, there is a certain consensus at the political level in Switzerland – for example, on the fact that we want a market economy that is at the same time social,” notes Lutz.

“Given the Swiss political model, which is based on consensus, any change in the social or economic status quo requires a slow, step-by-step approach,” he adds. “It is therefore more advantageous to fight elections over symbolic and emotional themes – like minarets, asylum seekers, or free movement of people – which politicians can use to stir up fear or play the national identity card. I think that in this way a huge gap has been created between the perception that many people have, and the economic and social reality.”

Winners and losers

Aversion to foreigners and foreign powers seems somewhat paradoxical in a country which gains much its wealth from trade with other states and from the contribution made to the economy by immigrant workers.

“Most Swiss are definitely among the winners of globalisation,” points out Freiburghaus. “But in all processes of modernisation and dismantling of barriers, there are also going to be losers. So there is a tendency to isolationism, coming from the right, but that is not what is really determining our policy. For more than a decade, the people have always supported the foreign policy strategy adopted by the government, for example when they approved our signing up to the Schengen agreement and the free movement of people with the EU.”

“These isolationist tendencies are also found in other countries, of course,” Freiburghaus admits. “In Switzerland they are just more apparent because they get a regular airing at all the nationwide votes on foreigners and foreign relations. But it is a good thing that these questions are discussed openly around the country. The politicians need to take the concerns seriously – even if they are the concerns of a minority.”

Automatic referendum: under the terms of the Swiss constitution, the people must decide on all treaties involving membership of international security partnerships or supra-national communities.

Referendum on demand: if 50,000 voters or eight cantons demand it, there must be a nationwide vote on international treaties which:

are of indefinite duration and non-rescindable;

involve joining an international organisation;

involve multilateral harmonization of legislation.

Initiative to “strengthen the people’s rights as regards foreign policy”.

If the initiative of the Association for a Neutral and Independent Switzerland is adopted on June 17, treaties will be automatically subject to a nationwide vote which:

set norms for three or more states in any important sector;

require Switzerland to adopt legislative provisions from other countries;

require Switzerland to accept the jurisdiction of an international court;

involve either one-time expenditures of over SFr1 billion ($1.04 billion) or recurring expenditures of over SFr100 million per year.

(Translated from Italian by Terence MacNamee)

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR