Does Switzerland hold the secret to a successful existence in Europe but outside of the European Union? A group of rightwing politicians who visited Bern on Friday came looking for answers, hopeful for alliances.
“Do we have an exportable model in Switzerland or not?” Conservative right Swiss People’s Party politician Yves Nidegger began the meeting of like-minded politicians from across Europe in the Swiss parliament on Friday by stating the question he rightly assumed would be high on the agenda for the informal talks.
Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from the UK Independence Party (UKIP), the Sweden Democrats, the Czech Free Citizen’s Party and the Lithuanian Order and Justice party had a whole host of questions for the Swiss People’s Party, ranging from the cost of holding referenda, to why Hitler didn’t invade Switzerland during the Second World War.
Some of the politicians at the meeting in Bern come from parties that have faced criticism for a range of reasons over the years. The Sweden Democrats have a history stemming from the neo-Nazi movementexternal link (the MEPS denounced this past in 2014), the Order and Justice party has a leader who was impeachedexternal link while president of Lithuania, UKIP has frequently run into controversy for its views on immigration and multiculturalism (as seen in a policy statementexternal link that was changed after attracting negative attention).end of infobox
But as the UK slowly moves towards a referendum on its membership of the EU, the Eurosceptic UKIP MEPs were focused on garnering what information they could to support their cause.
“You don’t need to be in a political union to trade and Switzerland demonstrates that. Per capita, Switzerland exports far more to the EU than what Britain does. So we do like the model that Switzerland has,” UKIP MEP Julia Reid told swissinfo.ch.
Whether the Swiss model is something that is actually exportable is an idea the People’s Party were hesitant to endorse.
“I don’t think that the institution [of direct democracy] as such is exportable,” Nidegger told swissinfo.ch. “It has been exported in a sense in California, but they are also of a similar mentality in the United States and Switzerland, due to New England and the Puritans and so on.”
“Maybe there is a bridge to be made with a country such as England, however they come from a tradition of parliamentary monarchy and a system of law which does not work the same way we do, but it [the Swiss system] could be a source of inspiration.”
Imitation is the highest form of flattery
Referenda – Swiss style – are admired around the world by proponents of direct democracy. UKIP wants to introduce referenda at a local (county) and national level. Laure Ferrari from the Institute of Direct Democracy in Europeexternal link, who arranged and moderated the meeting in Bern, posed the question of cost to Nidegger.
“You have to consider that every signature that is collected and checked is going to cost you about €5 (CHF5.4),” said Nidegger. “So if you want 100,000 signatures, you need half a million to start. And later on, if you succeed, more to campaign.”
He pointed out that the People’s Party is fortunate enough to have a “few millionaires” who support such processes financially. In fact, the People's Party launches the most initiatives out of all the parties. Some of them, such as a vote banning the construction of minarets, attracted criticism from institutions such as the UN and the Council of Europe.
It is not just a question of cost, however. In Switzerland, voting is part of the national identity. As Nidegger put it, “For the British cricket is the national sport on a Sunday, for us it’s voting.”
For David Coburn, MEP and leader of UKIP in Scotland, it is “issues of conscience” such as “euthanasia and also hangings, capital punishment” that should go to a public vote in the UK.
He said: “There are ideas and elements of the Swiss system that we could use, such as having referenda to decide major issues….you know, the recent example of gay marriage, I think that should have been put to a referendum.”
The referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, promised by the Conservative government, would be a perfect moment for British citizens to try their hand at direct democracy. And while Switzerland has plenty to offer in terms of experience and knowledge on involving the population in decision-making, could a vote for the UK to leave the European Union, bring some benefits for the Swiss?
“Because the UK is threatening to leave, and they have good arguments…there will be a concession on the side of the EU,” Nidegger said. “Since Switzerland also has to negotiate…as we are bound by this free movement of people treaty…the climate of renegotiation is probably positive for us.”
In a February 2014 vote, the Swiss narrowly backed an initiative led by the People’s Party to limit immigration. The result split opinion at home and abroad. It means the Swiss have to impose as-yet undefined quotas, despite currently being a signatory of the free movement of people accord.
Members of the delegation that came to Bern on Friday were open about their wish to have closer connections to parties with whom they had something in common in other countries, and in particular, the Swiss People’s Party.
“Nigel Farage [UKIP leader], like me, is very impressed with Swiss direct democracy – which is what we’re all about,” said Coburn. “We can lend a lot to each other [UKIP and the Swiss People’s Party], and that’s always a good thing.” Although Farage had been expected at the meeting, he did not attend as he was in Brussels after the EU heads of state met on Thursday evening.
While the People’s Party had been happy to answer a wide range of questions throughout the morning, they were reluctant to make any promises. “Switzerland is never going to be a model or a leader,” said Nidegger, adding that he was happy to offer insight on a general level. His party colleague, Luzi Stamm, who was also present at the meeting, added that he “wouldn’t exclude” speaking at a UKIP party conference, though he normally operated under the principle of “not telling European countries what to do”.
If a referendum on the UK leaving the EU does come to the conclusion that the nation should go it alone, the parties could soon have much more in common.