Swiss politics goes Green with a capital G

The surge in support for Green parties in the Swiss elections suggests that the Alpine country is shying away from right-wing populism and euroscepticism, says a former British Minister of State for Europe.

This content was published on November 6, 2019 - 16:23
Denis MacShane

The Swiss election to their 200-strong federal parliament has seen the biggest win for green politics ever in Switzerland and a significant defeat for anti-EU, and anti-immigrant political forces.

The traditional parties close to Swiss business and banking like the Radical-Liberals and Christian Democrats are, like Swiss glaciers, getting slowly smaller as the new divide in the Alpine country is between opposing variations of populism.

The conservative right-wing Swiss Peoples’ Party have campaigned for a quarter of a century against Europe and above all against immigration of any sort – from Europe, from Muslim regions of the world, and from the conflict zones of North Africa and the Middle East caused by Western interventions in Iraq, Libya and Syria.

But they now face the new green populists of two Swiss green parties – the Green Party, which is more radical and leftist, and the Liberal Green Party, which is more centrist and seeks to work with business rather than just attack the modern economy.

As elsewhere in Europe, the right-wing racist populism associated with Donald Trump and his European emissary, Steve Bannon, is not gaining ground despite claims by academics and commentators in 2018 that the hard anti-EU were going to take over European politics in the model of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage.

The Swiss, perhaps more than any other nation in Europe, see the impact of climate change as glaciers have disappeared or are getting smaller. I first went to work in Geneva 40 ago and there was much more snow around, and the pristine whiteness of the Swiss winter was one of the most attractive aspects of living in the country.

Now the Swiss winter is grey as often as it is white. A fortune has been spent on artificial snow canons to keep the pistes well covered in Davos or Zermatt, and scores of low-altitude ski resorts have had to find other sports to try and keep their hotels alive.

The two Swiss green parties gained 24 seats in one of the single biggest wins in an election seen in Swiss politics. Together with the Social Democratic Party, which has been painting itself green to profit from what is called the ‘Greta effect’ in Switzerland, they have 71 seats well ahead of the People's Party, who lost 11 seats and now have 54.

The new parliament has to settle in and observers in Switzerland reckon that there may well be no change to the composition of the Federal Council – the seven-strong cabinet which is the effective government of Switzerland.

The parliamentarians all work part-time and keep their day jobs, meeting just four times a year, and Switzerland remains a country of checks and balances with considerable tax raising and other powers left in the hands of the 24 cantons.

But the loss for the People's Party is a defeat for the anti-EU forces in Switzerland and opens up the possibility of a closer Swiss-EU relationship once the new EU Commission has settled in.

There is likely to be referendum on freedom of movement next May, five years after the 2014 referendum which voted to end freedom of movement under the Swiss-EU bilateral treaty system. Swiss employers were up in arms at losing their workforce and made clear to the People's Party that party funding would stop if they went ahead with banning freedom of movement.

Brussels made clear that ending freedom of movement would also end freedom of movement for goods, capital and services from Switzerland – a problem the United Kingdom government will soon have to face – and Swiss parliamentarians tweaked internal labour-market rules that allowed an uneasy compromise to be set up.

If next year’s referendum again seeks to ban freedom of movement, there will be a crisis between Brussels and Bern. But the strong showing for pro-European parties suggests that the Swiss do not want a conflict with their European partners.

Brussels has withdrawn equivalence rights for the Swiss stock exchanges, including the giant SIX exchange in Zürich. Bern responded by banning Swiss stocks being traded on EU bourses. It is a kind of score draw but Brussels has also raised the possibility of equivalence for Swiss medical products – a CHF16 billion industry which exports 75% of its output to the EU – coming to an end.

For a Britain heading towards Brexit, studying Switzerland’s relationship with the EU may repay close study. Those hoping for some kind of closure on Brexit can take comfort that the nationalist, anti-EU populism like Swiss glaciers is shrinking not growing in force.

This piece was first published on The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of

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