Fear of voters paralyses government over EU

Roland Bieber says the Swiss government does not have the courage to take a clear position on the EU. edipresse

The government’s ambiguous position on Europe Union membership is becoming increasingly hard to sustain, says law professor Roland Bieber.

This content was published on March 21, 2004 - 11:56

He told swissinfo that in today’s expanding EU, there was no room for “exceptions” – Switzerland had to be in or out.

Switzerland has long had an application for EU membership filed in Brussels, but the dossier is on ice for the current legislative period, which runs until 2007.

Instead the government is pursuing a “bilaterals” policy, which consists of striking a series of deals with Brussels aimed at minimising the disadvantages of staying out.

In recent weeks, Switzerland has been given a taste of what exclusion means: traffic crossing the border with Germany has been subjected to customs checks; Brussels has announced plans to levy a surprise tax on re-exports on June 1; and Germany intends to extend new rules to banks, which the Swiss say are prejudiced towards them.

For Roland Bieber, director of Lausanne University’s European and Comparative Law Centre, Switzerland’s lack of a clear policy is untenable.

swissinfo: Swiss policy towards the EU is unclear and contradictory. Do you expect things to be clearer in the next few years?

Roland Bieber: The Swiss position on the EU is very difficult to understand. Switzerland doesn’t dare to make its position clear on the issue, either internally or externally, by saying that it still wants to be a member and is working towards membership.

No one in the EU takes Swiss policy seriously, and that has implications for both a possible application for membership as well as the bilateral negotiations currently taking place.

swissinfo: Does the government have too little backbone or does it simply lack leadership?

R.B.: The government does not have the courage to take up a clear position. The government and the political majority here live in constant fear of the people, and that is a catastrophe when it comes to difficult political questions such as joining the EU.

In Norway, for example, the government has taken up a clear position, saying that it wants to join. But voters have twice rejected membership in referenda. Nevertheless, the government has been open about its stance; I expect the same from the Swiss government.

swissinfo: In the meantime, Swiss business has backed away from demands that the country join the EU. Wouldn’t it be more honest just to withdraw the application to join?

R.B.: This would be a mistake because Switzerland would lose its ties to the EU and would have to start again from scratch.

swissinfo: Do you believe that the government and the political majority in this country really want to join the EU?

R.B.: This is doubtful. On the one hand, the Swiss want the advantages of membership but, on the other, they don’t want any of the associated risks or uncertainties.

swissinfo: Switzerland seems to enjoy its role as a loner.

R.B.: Switzerland comes across as an old man, who lives on the top floor of an apartment block, and who wants to be disturbed as little as possible. Every so often, he complains about the noise in the building and sometimes he tells people how things could be done differently. But he only really wants one thing - to be left alone.

But the Swiss need to realise that they are a part of the European block and they can’t simply move out. They are Europeans – certainly in economic terms – albeit with a few eccentric constitutional differences. They should stop thinking that they are better than everyone else.

The Swiss have no alternative political or social model [to Europe] – they operate in exactly the same way as the rest of the industrialised nations.

swissinfo: But they can decide things for themselves. Joining the EU would mean that Swiss-style initiatives and referenda could not take place.

R.B.: Of course, one would have to give up a few traditions. But there are fewer and fewer rules and regulations coming out of the EU that have to be directly incorporated into national law.

Most EU directives come in the form of guidelines, which states then interpret according to their own laws. There is room for manoeuvre.

As a member, Switzerland would have to implement EU laws, but it would also have a place at the table, where it could influence the issues at stake.

I find it difficult to understand why a strong country like Switzerland is unwilling to be part of such a club. This is not only about economic issues; it is also a politic question.

We’re talking about the future of Europe as a whole and about Switzerland taking responsibility not only for its own well being but for that of Europe as well.

It’s not enough just to give out good advice or to provide development aid.

swissinfo: Foreign policy objectives tend to be viewed with scepticism by the Swiss. Is direct democracy a hindrance to opening up the country to the outside world?

R.B.: It can hinder overseas relations. Everyone understands that direct democracy is a structural issue unique to Switzerland. But one should not give up fighting for something before the battle has even started.

I have the impression that the political establishment in Switzerland has written off the membership because voters have turned it down. But one “no” from the voters does not mean the matter is closed – it means voters want to be better informed about an issue.

The actions of the government and the political establishment suggests paradoxically, not respect for direct democracy but fear of it.

swissinfo: In your study about different approaches to integration in Europe (“Differenzierten Integration in Europa”), you explored whether there was a middle way for Switzerland, which did not involve outright membership. Is there?

R.B.: The treaty of Amsterdam provided for different approaches to integration, but it is not applicable in Switzerland’s case.

If Switzerland had wanted to negotiate entry with exemptions, it would have to have to joined the European Economic Area [which it rejected in 1992]. That was the only model available.

Today, the possibility of any country negotiating a special status within the Union is lower than it has ever been.

swissinfo: So no special membership for Switzerland, even in an enlarged EU?

R.B.: No. Before negotiations with the ten new member states began, it was made clear that there was no opt-out.

What is clear is the EU takes very good care of its members. From the very moment a country – regardless of size and wealth – says, “I want to be part of the club”, a whole range of special conditions are opened up to it. This would also happen to Switzerland but it has to cross the threshold first.

swissinfo-interview: Katrin Holenstein (translation: Faryal Mirza)

In brief

Professor Roland Bieber is director of the European and Comparative Law Centre of Lausanne University.

The German-born academic has also taught at the European University in Florence, University of North Carolina and was a legal adviser to the European Parliament.

Bieber and his team at Lausanne are looking at competences and institutions within the framework of a European constitution, the only Swiss university to do so.

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