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Modern democracy ‘European Citizens' Initiative needs to become stronger’

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Lukas Wegmüller, co-leader of the New European Movement Switzerland sitting outside with his laptop on the table

Lukas Wegmüller joined the New European Movement Switzerland as secretary general last August. The political scientist used to have his own consultancy   

(Cora Pfafferott)

One organisation is defying the current political trend to promote Swiss membership in the EU and concrete steps to make it more democratic.

Established in 1998, the New European Movement of Switzerlandexternal link has around 3,500 members across Switzerland and is part of the European Movement International and the Union of European Federalists.

Cora Pfafferott spoke to Lukas Wegmüller, co-leader of the pro-EU movement, and to learn more about the strengths and weaknesses of citizen law-making.

Cora Pfafferott is the spokeswoman for Democracy Internationalexternal link and manages the office of the Swiss Democracy Foundationexternal link

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swissinfo.ch: Lukas Wegmüller, when will Switzerland join the European Union?

Lukas Wegmüller: Oh well, I think that’s not going to happen anytime soon. But even if Switzerland were to start the membership process, it would still take a lot of time due to the accession negotiations. And then of course the Swiss people would have the final say. So overall, it’s going to take a good while.

swissinfo.ch: But do I understand correctly that EU membership is the goal of your organisation, the New European Movement Switzerland?

L.W.: Yes, of course. The first sentence of our mission statement says: ‘The New European Movement Switzerland works towards a fast accession of Switzerland to the EU’.

For me, this is the best solution for Swiss-EU relations. It means that the Swiss people would have a true say at the European level. You know, currently, Switzerland is only a pseudo-sovereign state.

We pretend to be sovereign even though we are part of the EU system on many issues because of our bilateral agreements with the EU.

swissinfo.ch: But Switzerland is doing fine without being a EU member. Due to its linguistic plurality and its federal system the country is even called a “Mini-Europe”. What works well in Switzerland that does not work in the EU?

L.W.: Switzerland’s democracy functions better. Since its foundation in 1848, Switzerland has developed a very fine-tuned democratic system. Of course, the small size of Switzerland is one of the reasons why it works. We were also lucky in this historic process.

A major difference is that the Swiss people have a direct say in a lot of issues through the initiative and referendum process. Parliament must for instance make sure that its laws win majorities in nationwide votes, if 50,000 people force a referendum.

In my opinion, this relationship between the elected and the electors is much weaker in most of Europe compared with Switzerland. Many people believe that the EU is run by technocrats. If Europe’s leaders want the EU to be perceived as a polity not just of elites but of people, then it must make sure that the citizens are part of the decision-making process.

However, the EU is not simply undemocratic, as its parliament and the council are democratically elected institutions. But a stronger parliament and better opportunities to directly participate would definitely reduce the democratic deficit perceived by so many people.

swissinfo.ch: One step toward such a people’s Europe has been taken by the establishment of the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI). What’s your view on this first transnational tool of direct democracy as a Swiss citizen?

This article is part of #DearDemocracy, a platform on direct democracy issues from swissinfo.ch.

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L.W.: The European Citizens’ Initiative is a great start but it does not go far enough. When I hear the term citizens’ initiative, I’m thinking what an impact it should have on laws and the constitution. However, the ECI is just an invitation to the European Commission to consider a legal change. That’s a disappointment for me.

swissinfo.ch: This spring, the commission has launched a public consultation with the aim of improving the ECI. How would you strengthen it?

L.W.: It makes a lot of sense to keep the formal requirements as citizen-friendly as possible. When an ECI manages to collect one million signatures, then the EU Commission must respond to it in some way.

The people must feel they are taken seriously. At least some parts of the ECI should be integrated into the political process. For example, there should be an automatic reference to the European parliament, so that this elected body has to deal with the initiative proposal.

ECI organisers must be confident about the impact of their work. This will definitely boost the European public sphere and debate.

swissinfo.ch: As a Swiss citizen and supporter of the EU, what’s your view on the people’s initiative, approved by Swiss voters in 2014, to limit the free movement between your country and the EU?

L.W.: Well that’s direct democracy for you. The people must be given a say.

However, the question is if every voter is aware of the consequences of a yes- or no-vote. In the case of this particular initiative, the proposed amendment to the constitution launched by the Swiss People Party was not very clear, notably its implementation. 

swissinfo.ch: How should Switzerland’s practice of modern direct democracy be improved?

L.W.: We must ensure that there is access to well-balanced information and that everybody knows what we decide about. Currently it’s problematic that there are more and more initiatives that clash with international law. We must come up with solutions.

swissinfo.ch: Who should come up with such solutions?

L.W.: The media and the political parties must communicate in a fair and well balanced manner.

The parties have to work in a constructive way. Populists take over and things become one-sided otherwise. It’s not good enough to make political promises. There’s a risk that it will end in a big mess.

swissinfo.ch/P2P

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