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Relations with EU loom as major campaign issue

None of the five major parties succeeded in imposing its political agenda on the election campaign three years ago, despite considerable propaganda efforts. Keystone

The first skirmishes have already taken place between parties ahead of the 2015 parliamentary elections. The early start is prompted by uncertainties about the future of Switzerland’s relations with the EU.

The language and rhetoric of the conservative right Swiss People’s Party “are very like those of the 1930s in Germany”, said Martin Landolt, president of the Conservative Democratic Party. The party “exhibits fascist tendencies”, stated Christian Levrat, president of the Social Democrats.

Judging by the attacks launched in September by the two party presidents against the political right, we can expect a rather heated campaign in the run-up to the parliamentary elections of October 2015. Perhaps it is too early to say; but for sure, the current political climate is different from that of the last general election.

In 2011, the People’s Party tried once again to put the focus on the issue of foreigners, using provocative images and slogans such as a poster showing black boots marching onto Swiss territory.

To avoid playing the game of the largest national party, which had been buoyed by four consecutive election successes winning about 27% of the vote, the other parties decided to ignore its propaganda and concentrate on their own issues.

No party succeeded in imposing a dominant issue and the debates seemed to peter out in the final days of the campaign.

As a result, the People’s Party as well as the other four major national political parties – the leftwing Social Democrats, the centre-right Radicals and centrist Christian Democrats as well as the leftwing Greens – lost votes on election day.

Those votes went to two new centre-right and centrist parties, the Conservative Democrats and Liberal Greens.

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Economic prospects threatened

This time, however, with controversies erupting and positions being staked out by party officials, the campaign seems to be coming alive 12 months in advance of the elections.

Following the success of the initiative to clamp down on immigration, approved by voters in February, there is now a major issue at stake: Switzerland’s future relationship with the European Union.

By the end of this year, the cabinet will present its proposals for implementing the People’s Party initiative, which calls for a quota system to reduce the inflow of foreign workers. 2015 should see thorny negotiations with Brussels and intense political debates within the country.

For the parties of the centre-right to the left, this initiative of the People’s Party struck a blow not only at foreigners but at the vital interests of Switzerland.

Quotas are incompatible with the agreement on the free movement of people, they point out, and thus put at risk the whole series of bilateral treaties with the EU – and, in particular, access for Swiss companies to the European single market.

Implementation of the initiative will therefore threaten the economic prospects of Switzerland, which has 60% of its trade with the 28 member states.

The EU is Switzerland’s number one economic partner. In 2013 the 28 member states accounted for 56% of Swiss exports and supplied 75% of all imported goods. Switzerland is the number two market (after the US) for goods from the EU: in 2013 it bought 10% of all goods exported by the 28-nation bloc. As regards countries supplying the EU, Switzerland is in fourth place with 5.6% of the bloc’s imports. Switzerland’s relationship with the EU is particularly close when it comes to movement of people and the labour market: at the end of 2013, over 438,000 Swiss citizens resided in the 28 member states, while 1,250,000 EU citizens were domiciled in Switzerland.

“Among our priorities for the elections are maintaining a healthy economy,” says Dominique de Buman,  a vice-president of the Christian Democrats.

“We are going to fight to save the bilateral accords, which have contributed to the economic success of Switzerland in recent years. To win votes, the People’s Party is ready to break the agreements with other countries and lead Switzerland into a situation of isolation which could have catastrophic effects.”

In defence of national sovereignty

“Our primary goal is to safeguard the independence and security of Switzerland,” replies Albert Rösti, People’s Party election campaign leader.

“We are the only party that combats creeping membership of the EU. Brussels now wants to impose an institutional agreement on Switzerland, according to which we would have to automatically adjust our laws to those of the EU in future. This means we would lose our sovereignty.”

To preserve “the independence and security of Switzerland”, the party wants to push even further and has already given notice of two new initiatives coming up to the parliamentary elections.

The first aims to severely restrict the options for applying for asylum in Switzerland. The second aims to anchor the priority of Swiss law over international law in the country’s constitution.

“We see that the government and the other parties are prepared to do anything they can to avoid implementing our initiatives on expelling foreign criminals and clamping down on immigration, claiming that they would be contrary to international and European law.

“This is unacceptable, seeing as these initiatives have been approved by the people. Other countries’ laws cannot prevail over Swiss law,” Rösti insists.

A future like North Korea

These new projects of the People’s Party have raised a chorus of negative reactions from other parties.

“The People’s Party wants to turn its back on international relations and international law, the existence of the United Nations and the other international organisations. This way Switzerland would become a kind of North Korea of Europe,” says de Buman.

For Andy Tschümperlin, who leads the Social Democratic group in parliament, “the People’s Party is just trying to put all the emphasis on relations with the outside to promote the idea of a ‘common enemy’ and distract attention from internal problems.

“So it is going to be necessary to have a major debate to deal with internal issues, such as a fairer distribution of wealth.”

Regula Rytz, co-president of the Greens, adds: “We cannot stop any party putting relations with the outside and basic principles like respect for international law on the agenda for discussion.

“But we need to continue to defend our values, those of a democracy open to the world which does not aim just to profit from the outside, but also wants to participate in solving global problems, like climate change and the energy revolution.”

Positions too far apart

A campaign centred on relations with the outside world might again favour the party of the right, which in the past has scored points with the voters by insisting on a rejection of any rapprochement with the EU.

But again this time, it is unlikely that a common strategy will be adopted by the other parties, whose positions on many economic and social issues remain too far apart.

“We believe that neither a policy of isolation promoted by the People’s Party, nor a policy of redistribution of wealth by the Social Democrats will allow Switzerland to progress. We need liberal solutions to safeguard the common good and prospects of development for the country,” maintains Vincenzo Pedrazzini, who heads the Radical election campaign.

His centre-right party is nonetheless thinking of running a combined list of candidates with the People’s Party in about ten of the country’s 26 cantons.


By the end of the year the Swiss government will present a bill to implement the initiative for a clampdown on immigration, approved by the nation’s voters last February. The initiative requires that the number of residence permits for foreigners in Switzerland, including citizens of the EU, be limited by means of caps and annual quotas. Such limitations would, however, run counter to the agreement on the free movement of people, which is part of the first package of bilateral treaties between Switzerland and the EU in force since 2002. According to the People’s Party, this agreement can be cancelled and renegotiated. The other parties say that if it were to be cancelled, the whole bilateral package would be put at risk.

(Adapted from Italian by Terence MacNamee)

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