The man who sent all of Europe into a flurry of agitation is battling a persistent cough. But Christoph Blocher is in the best of moods nonetheless. He is enjoying his victory in the five-star Hotel Ermitage near Gstaad at an altitude of 1,231 meters (4,038 feet) with the snow-covered Alpine peaks of the Berner Oberland as a backdrop.
Blocher is wearing brown pants and a plaid shirt stretched over his ample belly. The sun is shining, the sky is blue, the receptionists are wearing traditional folk costumes and paintings of happy-looking cows decorate the walls. It is how he likes his country of Switzerland.
Blocher is recovering here from his strenuous campaign against “mass immigration,” which he led together with his Swiss People’s Party. Without Blocher, the referendum never would have come to pass–and it certainly would not have achieved its unexpected success, which saw a razor-thin majority of 50.3 percent of voters approving quotas for immigration from European Union countries. It is a result that strikes at the core of united Europe. And once again, Blocher showed them all, particularly the Swiss government in Bern and EU headquarters in Brussels.
It is his most significant triumph since 1992, when he also used a referendum to prevent Switzerland from joining the European Economic Area, a result which put a stop to the country’s courtship with EU membership.
A satisfied Blocher is sitting at a wooden table in the hotel restaurant and holds forth for two hours. “Switzerland didn’t resolve to prevent all foreigners from coming,” he said, wagging his finger. “Those who are needed can still come. The others can’t.”
That the EU has reacted with such a fuss is hardly surprising, he says grinning. The result has led to desperation among the other half of Switzerland’s population and sent the country’s government into a state of silent despondency. Swiss business owners are concerned about countermeasures from Brussels. More than anything, though, the Swiss referendum has sent shock waves through Europe.
Few paid the vote much mind before it took place, but the referendum’s result last week made it onto the front pages of newspapers across Europe. Politicians from London to Berlin, from Brussels to Rome released statements. And it quickly became clear that the Swiss once again shined the spotlight on an issue that people across the continent are concerned about.
A Wedge in Europe
It was a similar story in 2013 when the Swiss voted to put caps on manager salaries in the country. But this time, with just three months to go before European Parliament elections in May, the stakes are even higher. Survey numbers for right-wing populist parties in several European countries have hit record highs, an indication that the forces unleashed by the crisis have not dissipated. European citizens, of course, have never been particularly infatuated with EU institutions, but before they at least believed that the bloc was good for the economy and quality of life. But with the crisis seemingly unwilling to let go, increasing numbers of people have come to believe that Europe actually threatens their prosperity.
Greeks, Italians and French blame economic policy from Brussels for their difficulties. At the same time, Germans and other Northern Europeans are afraid they will ultimately be forced to cough up for EU countries to the south. What some call “reform” and others call “austerity” is driving a wedge between Europeans. And now, the issue of free movement across the EU is being thrown into the discussion because many are concerned they could lose out on the employment market. But questioning the EU principle allowing people to choose where they wish to live and work is akin to questioning the entire European project.
Switzerland, of course, is not a member of the European Union, but it is closely bound to the bloc by a number of bilateral pacts. The fact that one of the most prosperous countries in the world is seeking to distance itself from the union shows just how great the resentment has become — and it shows what might be in store for Brussels in the not-too-distant future. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, European Parliament President Martin Schulz and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso were quick to emphasize that the right to free movement within the bloc was not up for debate. But they also said that they respect the voters’ desires as expressed in the Swiss referendum.
One reason for the mostly cautious reactions from European politicians is that it remains unclear exactly what the concrete results of the referendum will look like; Bern must first determine how high the quotas for immigrants from the EU will be. But more importantly, European politicians are clearly wary of fueling the debate. Few, after all, can be certain that citizens in their own country wouldn’t have voted the same way, given the opportunity.
Indeed, it wasn’t just right-wing populist politicians — such as Heinz-Christian Strache from the FPÖ in Austria, Geert Wilders from Holland or Marine Le Pen from the Front National in France – who rushed to congratulate the Swiss and demand immigration quotas for their own countries. Even politicians with reputations as moderates, such as former French Prime Minister François Fillon, likewise demanded quotas. In Germany, a survey found that 48 percent would support a similar policy.
Delighted by the Result
In particular, however, Brussels is concerned that the Swiss virus could infect Great Britain. Hate for the EU there is so great that a conservative politician even blamed Brussels indirectly for the recent flooding in the country. Many in Britain are delighted by the result of the Swiss referendum–and no one is as vocal about it as Nigel Farage. “Fantastic,” he yells into the telephone. Farage is head of the UKIP party, which favors Britain’s withdrawal from the EU and is currently polling at 20 percent in pre-election surveys. “The result of the referendum is very encouraging,” he says. “Finally, common sense is winning out.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron, facing the prospect of a strong UKIP, has himself demanded that some EU treaties be renegotiated in Brussels. He would also like to see immigration quotas like those approved by the Swiss, but his demands have thus far not been met. Last week, Cameron’s spokesman said that the referendum reflects a “growing concern” when it comes to freedom of movement within the EU. For Britain, Switzerland is a test to see how susceptible the EU is to coercion.
Conservative MP Andrea Leadsom can now approach the coming months with equanimity. In 2011, she co-founded the initiative Fresh Start, which demands that the UK’s relationship with the EU be re-imagined. Last week, she was sitting in the atrium of the London House of Commons explaining her 30 demands: Great Britain should opt out of EU police and criminal justice measures; it should withdraw from the Charter of Fundamental Rights; each member state should be able to decide for itself who is allowed access to welfare benefits; the British parliament should be allowed the ability to block European Commission proposals it doesn’t agree with. Essentially, Leadsom wants structures that allow the UK to pick and choose the regulations it finds most advantageous.
In recent months, MPs associated with Fresh Start have been traveling through Europe promoting their “menu,” as they call it. They were in Berlin, Paris, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and a half-dozen other European capitals. “It is a poker game,” Leadsom says. Their joker is the fact that they have a threat in hand that would be a horror scenario for many in Europe: the withdrawal of Britain from the EU. In 2017, the country is planning to hold a referendum on whether to remain in the bloc; if they decide to go, it would likely trigger a difficult crisis in the EU.
The EU must find a response. It has to become more flexible and less bureaucratic in order to take the wind out of its opponents’ sails. At the same time, it can’t allow itself to be blackmailed. But the current success of the right-wing populists is increasing pressure on the EU Commission. Brussels must find a reaction to the fact that many Europeans no longer welcome the Continent’s open borders–rather, they see them as a real threat.
In Madrid last Thursday, European Commissioner Michel Barnier was waiting for his flight back to Brussels. The Frenchman is responsible for the EU’s internal market and for banking regulation. In many ways, he is a typical Eurocrat: hardly anyone knows who he is but almost all are affected by the decisions he takes. He has ambitions of becoming European Commission President once Barroso’s term expires this autumn and had just had a meeting with the Spanish prime minister in an effort to gain his support.
Barnier says that he respects the Swiss referendum, but he is of course unhappy with the result. Immigration quotas for EU citizens, he says, are simply “unacceptable.”
He is a convinced European. In the early 1990s, he was one of the few from his party — the conservative Union for a Popular Movement — to vote for the Maastricht Treaty, the agreement that paved the way for the common currency. Now, he is seeing many UMP members showing sympathy for the xenophobic slogans being bandied about by the right-wing Front National. Even French Interior Minister Arnaud Montebourg, a member of President François Hollande’s Socialist Party, has criticized EU competition rules. France’s relationship to the EU is at a low point.
Barnier is trying not to let it bother him. “The crisis is to blame,” he says, adding that once the economy gets going again, normality will return. But no one can really say when, or even whether, the EU will once again see substantial growth. As such, Barnier is interested in calming the debate by appeasing the British: One should look into what issues could be better regulated on a national basis, he recently said.
As a parliamentarian and regional president, Barnier served the Savoyen region for more than 20 years. He says: “175,000 people there drive to work across the Swiss border each day.” These engineers, researchers and doctors, he said, contribute to Switzerland’s prosperity–a situation which is beneficial to all. On the other side of the border, in the canton of Geneva, the majority agrees. Voters there rejected the referendum.
But proximity to the border does not necessarily result in a pro-European attitude. A couple hundred kilometers to the southeast, another border canton overwhelmingly supported the initiative: Tessin. Some 60,000 people from the Italian region of Lombardy work in Tessin; well before dawn, the traffic jam in Viggiù, an Italian border town of 5,000, begins. Brake lights line up for kilometers as commuters slowly make their way from the EU into Switzerland.
The right-wing populist party Lega Nord is powerful in Viggiù–the same party which for decades has been demanding the creation of an independent state called “Padania” in Italy’s prosperous north. It is also opposed to immigration. “If I were Swiss, I would have voted the same way,” says Sandra Cane, mayor of Viggiù. “Who are we to interfere in their affairs? I also don’t like the lecturing tone adopted by the EU, this idea of ‘now we are going to punish Switzerland by shutting off the electricity.’”
Such comments coming from Sandra Cane are astounding for two reasons. First, despite being the only dark-skinned mayor in all of Italy, she is a member of Lega Nord, a party notorious for its racism. Second, almost half of Viggiù’s working population commutes to Switzerland. “It is true that, if the Swiss slam the door shut, we are dead. But we should learn from them and hold a similar referendum in Italy,” Cane says. “Everyone is coming to us, from Lampedusa they head north. And yet, we have enough people here already with nothing to eat.”
The gap in prosperity between Switzerland and Italy led Cane and other mayors in Lombardy to seriously campaign to be recognized as the 27th Swiss canton. The project failed, but the envious looks across the border have remained.
As such, it is hardly surprising that demands are increasing for the Swiss example to be followed. Roberto Maroni, head of Lega Nord and president of Lombardy, says “sovereignty lies with the people, not with Ms. Merkel or in Brussels.”
Italian politicians are fond of complaining about Europe, which is much easier than owning up to their own failures. When European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs Olli Rehn was in Rome last September, he was roundly criticized. Rehn is a “Mr. Nobody who comes to Italy and acts like the senior supervisor,” said one Senate vice president. Rehn acts “as though we were a colony,” said the chair of the foreign relations committee. Many Italians blame Brussels for the economic troubles their country is currently facing. Just as so-called “benefit tourism” has generated hostility for the EU among northern member states, austerity has angered those in the south.
On the Other Side
In Bargen, a village of 291, located directly on the Swiss border with Germany in the canton of Schaffhausen, it would be difficult to claim that Europe had destroyed any lives. It is a well-off little town. Yet 79.7 percent of the voters there opted in favor of a cap on immigration from the EU, higher than anywhere else in Switzerland. Bargen apparently wants the border back, even though the village is little more than a trio of gas stations on the highway–gas stations that make their money off of Germans who fill up here because fuel is cheaper than on the other side of the border.
Erich Graf, the municipality’s president, smokes a cigarette and looks out over his village. He said he thought long and hard about the referendum before he ultimately voted in favor of immigration caps. He came to the conclusion that something had to change. Graf is a heavy-set man with a friendly, ruddy face and gray hair. Prior to Switzerland joining the Schengen area and when the border still functioned as such, he worked for the border patrol.
“In referenda, our village tends to be more to the right than to the left,” he says. In Bargen, foreigners make up 23 percent of the population, almost exactly Switzerland’s nationwide average. Three-quarters of the foreigners are Germans. It is difficult to say where the rejection comes from, Graf says, yet he tries nonetheless. “Twenty-five years ago, everyone knew everyone here.” People chatted on the street, there were local clubs and events–village life. Now it has become much more anonymous, he says. His comments are infused with a feeling of loss.
When it came to the referendum, Bargen was not focused on the big picture. Just like elsewhere in Switzerland, voters here didn’t reject the EU because they are doing poorly. Rather, they think that their economy is perhaps growing too rapidly and the country is changing too quickly. Because they feel their home is threatened.
Picking Up the Pieces
Switzerland is doing better than ever before with prosperity at an all-time high, almost full employment and an economy that grew by 2 percent last year. “How can we explain to people from abroad that we have a problem?” Such is the question asked by Valentin Vogt, president of the Swiss employers’ association and, to some extent, the loser of the referendum. But Vogt is trying to be a good loser. “It happens to be the case that we have this system of direct democracy, the best political system in the world, even if there are sometimes outliers where one wonders . . .” He stops speaking in mid-sentence, the smile fades from his lips.
Vogt is chairman of the board at a metal engineering company which employs 1,200 people. He is also an advisor to the Swiss National Bank and acts as the voice of Swiss business. Now, he has been placed in the difficult position of explaining his curious, intractable homeland and defending it from external criticism even if he himself was bitterly disappointed by the result of the referendum. Until the very end, he thought that a majority of voters saw things as he did. He traveled throughout the country trying to convince people to back his position. “You know, it is very easy to blame foreigners for all problems,” he would say. Now, he hopes that the government will find a solution that is acceptable for the EU.
But Brussels has already postponed talks with Switzerland on a cross-border electricity deal and has also put the brakes on a research and educational pact which could mean that Swiss students are denied access to the Erasmus educational exchange program. If more consequences are coming–were the EU really to make good on its threats of a harsh response to Switzerland’s renouncement of freedom of movement–then all the applause the country is receiving from people across Europe would be of little use.
Whereas Blocher, the victor, basks in his success in the mountains, Vogt is forced to pick up the pieces down in the city.