GENEVA The right-wing surge in the 2014 European elections is unlikely to have an immediate impact on Switzerland, other than to reinforce immigration concerns among those who voted for curbs on foreigners in the 9 February Swiss referendum.
Apart from wishing to disengage as much as possible from Brussels, a prime message from Europe’s disgruntled or angry xenophobes, nationalists, protectionists and libertarians is that no sovereign nation, such as Britain and France, should have to absorb even more outsiders, particularly from eastern Europe, just because EU rules allow its citizens to work wherever they like.
The fact that many of these “foreigners” do jobs that locals are unwilling to undertake seems beside the point. Or that numerous Brits, French or Dutch themselves seek employment or set up businesses in Germany, Spain and Hungary. The same goes for the Swiss, 340,000 of whom live and work in the EU, but whose homeland desperately needs foreign labour – often skilled – to run its banks, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, farms, pharmaceutical manufacturers and other businesses.
Nevertheless, unless the four main pro-European groups in Brussels, who still represent 70% in the new parliament and continue to “control the money” – as one commentator put it – can address the critical issues that instigated such a devastating no-confidence vote, repercussions in Swiss-EU relations will undoubtedly emerge. Bern may have to contend not only with its own potentially expanding anti-migration constituency but also with backlashes among its neighbours. While some EU citizens view Switzerland as an example of precisely how not to lose one’s sovereign rights to Brussels, others regard the Swiss as arrogant, always seeming to take rather than give, or who manage to obtain benefits on their own terms regardless of the impact on others.
France’s Rhône-Alpes region bordering Geneva and Vaud witnessed a strong rise of the right-wing Front National in many of its cantons; the party gained 24.95% nationwide, compared with 6.3% in 2009. This is ironic given that numerous French have benefited enormously in the form of jobs and tax remittances from Switzerland because so many Pays de Gex or Haute-Savoie residents work on the Swiss side. The French and German border zones with Basel are experiencing the same. Many local entrepreneurs, some of them ardent FN supporters, have also enriched themselves from the property development boom since the end of the 1990s.
Earlier this week, European leaders mandated Brussels to explore exactly what has been going wrong – and how to put things right. This is considered crucial, even if some politicians complacently argue that the overall anti-EU vote was in reality “only” 10-13% (less than 40% of Europeans bothered to go to the polls) so, other than sending a message, the upheaval is not as bad as one might think. But they ignore the registered gains of Britain’s UKIP (27.5%), France’s FN (24.95%) and Denmark’s DPP (26.7%) at their peril.
Others note that these right-wing groups are so disparate in their views that they will prove incapable of uniting as a single parliamentary force, so there is still time for mainstream parties to get things right. The far right parties are more likely to split into at least four factions. UKIP’s Nigel Farage, for example, made it quite clear that he considers Marine Le Pen’s FN neo-Nazi with racist leanings, and hence unacceptable as a coalition partner.
But none of this illustrates the real problem at hand, notably why almost two out of three Europeans neglected to go to the booths. The EU has failed to inspire the bulk of its citizens. This was evident in the way the various parties called upon voters with their pro or anti-EU posters. Apart from the main leaders, most of the candidates pictured were completely unknown to their electorates. Furthermore, except for Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats in Germany, most of Europe’s mainstream parties have consistently failed to adopt policies responding to the needs of ordinary Europeans, such as how to alleviate unemployment or stimulate small business creation.
Even more to the point, Brussels has neglected to put across what the “project for Europe” is trying to achieve. Many Europeans see only what they perceive to be the negative aspects of a largely faceless supranational body rather than what this often top-heavy but nevertheless unusual experiment in governance has actually done to improve people’s lives in barely half a century.
For Switzerland, various commentators now see its principal challenge as how to define itself with regard to immigration and improve cross-border relations in a manner that ensures a win-win on both sides, whether in the form of regional vision or jobs. This might be an insurmountable challenge in light of prevailing scepticism, all too clearly voiced by Christoph Blocher this week when he told the Tribune de Genève, “Being in the European Union is not good for countries.”
Edward Girardet, firstname.lastname@example.org