The overwhelming vote on 30 November against even more limited immigration (Ecopop); an end to special tax rates for wealthy foreigners and minimal gold reserves enabled the Federal Council in Bern, which had opposed all three initiatives, to sigh with relief. What the government did not need were more obstacles undermining its bilateral accords with the European Union, Switzerland’s largest trading partner.
The majority of Swiss, it seems, have grasped that their country can simply not function without unrestricted access to foreign workers, including qualified managers, researchers and innovators. Furthermore, even if other European right-wing parties are pushing for immigration curbs, the tone of last February’s referendum restricting mass immigration did little for Switzerland’s image abroad. Not only did Brussels immediately rule out any renegotiation, but the Swiss themselves felt the impact, such as the termination of the prestigious Erasmus student exchange programme. (See article in this issue of Le News).
Do such popular initiatives really reflect a functioning democracy? Last month’s participation barely drew 48 percent, hardly a majority. Many Swiss complain that there are too many referenda, which are held every three months. They also consider them costly.
Often, the issues are too complicated or irrelevant to understand. Ideally, one would assume that responsible citizens will spend the time reading up before voting, but we all know this does not happen. During one recent cantonal referendum, the local electorate voted to have their council determine how many energy-producing windmills were needed rather than have ordinary people make such a technical decision.
The 9 February vote might be an issue too precarious for voters to decide. How many Swiss, particularly in the rural German-speaking parts, understood the implications of blocking EU citizens from working in this country? Did they realise that their economic well-being, one of the highest in the world, was primarily the result of such immigration? Or did they allow xenophobia regarding “die Anderen” (the “others”, meaning “outsiders”) to cloud their judgement?
Part of this was the failure of the Swiss media and government to inform people properly about the consequences. It was a different story leading up to the Ecopop initiative with constant debate both in the press and social media.
Encouraged by the high anti-Ecopop vote, a new non-partisan citizens group (See Le News story in this issue) is now seeking to abrogate the 9 February decision by launching a popular referendum against it. But is this the way democracy should work? Would it not be better to have one’s parliamentarians decide? After all, that’s their job and that’s why we elect them. The occasional referendum may be empowering, and sounds great when explaining the effectiveness of Swiss democracy to school children, but it’s not the way to run a country responsibly.
Edward Girardet, Managing editor. email@example.com