The only time the Swiss make US headlines, other than with the occasional Olympic biathlon medal, is when a majority of the voters exercise their franchise by voting down minarets or, as happened this month, banning free immigration from the European Union.
As the most democratic country on earth — major political questions are submitted to a popular vote — Switzerland allows what are called popular initiatives on any issue that can muster 100,000 signatures on a petition. It’s the only country in Europe that operates like "The Gong Show".
Popular initiatives on the ballot arise from signed petitions. Referendums, on the other hand, although voted on in the same manner, sometimes give citizens the right to approve or disapprove legislation that has already passed.
In a country of almost eight million people, getting one percent of the population to sign off for a ballot initiative on the outrage of the day isn’t very challenging. Then, when the vote is scheduled, the Swiss, including me, say yes or no to all sorts of questions.
My favorite initiative, a while back, was whether the animals in each canton (county is the closest English word) needed a lawyer to handle their days in court. A cat man, I voted yes. My neighbors, in the majority, said no, implying that the laws of the jungle were all the animals needed.
In the case of European Union (EU) immigration, the Swiss People’s Party — called the UDC locally and dominated by right-wingers, Swiss Germans, and farmers in rural cantons — asked for a vote to restrict EU immigrants from entering Switzerland, and to restore an earlier edict that Swiss job applicants have precedent over foreigners.
While Switzerland is not a member of the EU, during the last twelve years it has agreed to a number of bilateral treaties that give Europeans unfettered access to Swiss job markets and to establishing local residency here.
With the European economy flat-lining since 2008, many in the EU have drifted across the border into Switzerland to work in a variety of skilled and unskilled jobs. With paychecks in Swiss francs, the work offers better returns than, say, looking to catch on as a hedge fund manager on the Greek island of Mykonos.
Now that the Swiss have voted to put quota limits on EU immigrants, what exactly will happen?
The way the initiative system works is this: just because a question is accepted by popular acclaim doesn’t make it law. It does, however, give the government — in this case the federal parliament in Bern — three years to draft and pass a law that complies with the spirit of the resolution.
The way the law is written over the following three years, however, doesn't necessarily conform exactly to what has been voted up or down in the popular initiative.
In the case of the immigration vote, I would imagine that many caveats will be written into the deportation orders so that foreigners holding down jobs in Switzerland will not be driven to the border, and that future immigrants will continue to find Swiss places to live and work (although the needed paperwork will increase).
When I moved from the US to Switzerland in 1991, it was before the existing open immigration policies were in place. To hire me, my employer had to write the job posting in such a way that only one person on earth, me, had those requisite skills. It took me six months to get a work permit and begin my job.
In much news reporting about the current immigration vote, the subtext is that the Swiss are racist in wanting to boot out foreigners and that the country suffers from “too much democracy” by allowing citizens to vote on questions as though everyone were a parliamentarian.
I'd answer the racism charge by saying that the Swiss are about average in terms of tolerance for immigration. Unlike the US, for example, Switzerland does not have a fence along its southern border. Nor does it fingerprint foreign tourists at the airports.
To my mind, the immigration vote was less about racial intolerance, and more an expression of Swiss anger at Brussels and even Washington for routinely beating up the country over such issues as Libya, banking secrecy, minarets, the strong Swiss franc, and bilateral trade agreements.
Swiss critics — and there are many around Europe and the world — argue that Switzerland wants all the benefits of the adjacent EU, such as access to its rich markets, but without incurring any of the costs, for example, those run up in bailing out the insolvent Greeks.
There may be some truth to this, but, nevertheless, there are also both historical and modern reasons that Switzerland refuses to join the EU. The 1815 Congress of Vienna, at the end of the Napoleonic wars, and a subsequent Treaty of Turin enshrined the idea of Swiss neutrality as one of the cornerstones of the European peace.
No single major power, it was argued, should hold sway over the Swiss alpine passes and the trade flows of Europe. Two-hundred-year-old political traditions die slowly.
The recent reasons that Switzerland has not joined the EU have to do with its federalism, rooted in its communal and cantonal governments, including things like initiative and referendum voting. All political power in Switzerland is local; everyone is a communard.
Many Swiss feel that if the country were an EU member, their communes (really villages) would become hostage to German edicts or French heavy-handedness, not to mention bureaucrats in Brussels.
In practice, Swiss democracy most closely resembles Thomas Jefferson’s constitutional theories, in which well-educated farmers and small business operators (not career politicians) run the villages and the towns, and all abhor centralized power, be it in Bern, London, Paris, Brussels or Washington.
By contrast, the US likes to boast that it is the greatest democracy on earth, even though the Senate is a millionaire’s club, Congress is a gerrymandered closed shop of incumbents, and the presidency is a legalized monarchy. (If in doubt, compare the court of Louis XIV with the 700 people in President Obama’s traveling entourage, which includes speechwriters, chefs, and food tasters.)
Between incumbency and the Electoral College, many US votes “don’t matter,” and they only happen every two or four years.
For sure, letting every Swiss over age 18 play the role of parliamentarian every six weeks has its risks (I still think we should have voted in those animal-rights lawyers). But the major reason I became Swiss in 2009 was so that I could vote every six weeks on the issues of the day.
My family is composed of six voters, and what’s amazing is how we have completely different views on each ballot question. I vote for business and bike lanes and against taxes, while I suspect my wife of either syndicalism or maybe what the French delightfully call gauche caviar, (the local equivalent of 'limousine liberalism').
The children spread their votes around between the greens and fiscal no-nonsense, so that a dinner during an initiative vote reminds me of the last scenes in Lawrence of Arabia, when various tribes swarm the pan-Arab Congress, all waving large flags.
Yes, referendum democracy makes mistakes. The vote to prohibit minarets, to give just one example, was a lose-lose proposition, and it only went on the ballot to humiliate the government. But without these ballots — even those that propose marching immigrants to the border — our dinners would be sadly quieter, and our politics would be, too.
Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine, is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical travel essays. His new book, Whistle-Stopping America, was recently published.
Flickr photo by tomgeens