Last week’s Le News editorial questioning whether the over use of Switzerland’s referendum system was actually undermining democracy through too much democracy received considerable reaction, much of it irate. Clearly, we had touched on a sacred cow, even if not of the Swiss Brown or Simmental variety. How dare one criticize Swiss democracy? It has worked for centuries (Swiss women might have a different point of view given that they only received the Federal vote in 1971) so why change?
But that is precisely why Swiss voters need to constantly question the system. And why there needs to be far more open and candid debate about: who we are as a nation in the 21st century; the potential of a more fruitful immigrant society; and how Switzerland is perceived globally. The Swiss government’s move to finally crack down on corruption-ridden organizations such as the International Federation of Football Association (FIFA) was prompted largely by the bad publicity the sports body was generating for this country’s reputation. (See this week’s story in Le News).
To demand that people simply not say anything, or that provocative insights should be ignored, as some readers suggest, is actually a subversion of democracy. While the Swiss press ranks as one of freest in world, auto-censorship is widely practised by much of the mainstream media, particularly in the German-speaking parts. There is a general reluctance to highlight issues, particularly if raised by outsiders, that question ‘traditional’ values, make people uncomfortable, or even come across as bad for the country.
Writing as a New York-born “Weltschweizer” (father Vaudois, mother from Basel), there is little doubt that the Helvetic system has a lot to offer. Its federal approach, with the canton’s having much of their own say is often cited as a possible example for crisis-ridden countries such as Afghanistan (See last week’s piece on a Swiss role for Afghanistan) which have fared badly from overly centralised governments. But the Swiss also need to be aware of how they are regarded, even if they don’t like what they hear.
One example is the discriminatory manner with which many Swiss, including the Bern government, treat “die Anderen” (the ‘others’), notably foreigners living and working in Switzerland. This includes expatriates who have become naturalised Swiss, but who maintain that they are still branded as outsiders, even if they have served in the Swiss army.
Much of this has to do with deep-seated xenophobic attitudes if not resentment. Foreign residents, who are contributing overwhelmingly to Swiss society with taxes, know-how, labour and spending, often complain that Swiss are quite happy to take their money, but that they really don’t care about them as human beings. This is an aspect of Swiss society that is not particularly glorious (nor different perhaps from many other countries), but which exists as a firmly embedded reality.
The overwhelming rejection on 30 November of the Ecopop vote has somewhat redeemed the Swiss in the eyes of the European Union and foreigners elsewhere. But this was a primarily pragmatic decision by Swiss voters. It does not really reflect the attitude of many Swiss toward “die Anderen.”
Brussels has just re-declared its willingness to open its doors even more to Switzerland to stimulate more effective integration through broader trade, cultural exchanges and research support. But this cannot happen if current bilateral agreements are in any way tampered with. Here the 28 European member states are remaining firm.
The challenge now is how Switzerland, as an immigrant society not unlike most other European countries, will deal with change rather than harking back to a past without foreigners that no longer exists, and never actually did despite claims by some Swiss conservatives. People do not have to agree, but what is needed is far more open – and informed – debate tackling the real issues at hand. Not just visceral gut responses.
Edward Girardet. Managing editor, email@example.com