Colin Freeman, Telegraph (London), February 16, 2014
As the owner of a spectacular cliff-top castle, billionaire Christoph Blocher knows all about how previous generations of Swiss deterred unwanted visitors.
Yet six centuries on from the building of Schloss Rhäzüns, the towering mediaeval home where he lives in eastern Switzerland, his tactics for fending off foreign invaders have evolved somewhat.
Fed up with an “unacceptable” level of migration from the rest of Europe, Mr Blocher personally bankrolled last week’s referendum campaign in which the Swiss voted to end their freedom of labour arrangements with the European Union.
Put forward by the hard-Right Swiss People’s Party, for whom he is both chief treasurer and ideologue, the vote has paved the way for tough new quotas on foreign workers.
In the process, it has sent shock waves across Europe, with Mr Blocher hailed as a hero by British Euro-sceptics, and as a xenophobe by the European Union’s high command.
Indeed, judging by the anger in Brussels, where freedom of movement is seen as a core EU principle, the best place for him right now might be the dungeon in the east wing of his castle.
“The single market is not a Swiss cheese,” scolded Viviane Reding, the European Commission’s vice-president, who recently accused British politicians of pandering to extremists over opposition to Romanian and Bulgarian migrants. “You cannot have a single market with holes in it.”
Such scorn is a source of pride for Mr Blocher, 73, who describes himself as an admirer of Churchill and Thatcher, and who believes that David Cameron might now learn from Switzerland’s experience.
Just as Britain has struggled with its recent wave of immigration from Eastern Europe, he says, Switzerland ended up attracting far more foreign workers than it bargained for when it signed an EU free movement treaty in 1999.
“Our government said we wouldn’t get more than 8,000 people coming in and instead there was 84,000,” Mr Blocher told the Telegraph. “I believe you have had the same problem in the UK, in terms of inaccurate predictions. We had lost our independence and control on immigration, and we needed to get it back.
“The political class in every country in Europe may say its all fine, that it’s good for the economy, and they are right in the sense that the whole pie is bigger. But the slice that each person gets is smaller.”
Switzerland, which has never been part of the EU, is now braced for retaliatory measures from Mrs Reding and her commission colleagues, who have warned that countries cannot “cherry pick” their relationships with the bloc.
Since that is precisely what many in Britain would dearly like to do, the battle will be watched eagerly by Euro-sceptics in the UK and anti-EU parties across the continent, many of which hope that anger over the handling of the eurozone crash will generate big gains for them in May’s European elections.
“This is wonderful news for national sovereignty and freedom lovers throughout Europe,” said Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP. “A wise and strong Switzerland has stood up to the bullying and threats of the unelected bureaucrats of Brussels.”
That same vision of Switzerland as a small, plucky nation is one that Mr Blocher has deftly peddled in his political career, during which he has turned the SVP from an obscure conservative farmer’s movement into Switzerland’s’ biggest single political force. In the 2011 elections, it won 26 per cent of the vote, giving it seats in the country’s seven-member, power-sharing cabinet.
But by appealing to Swiss pride in resisting outside influence, be it the Habsburg empire or that of Napoleon, the SVP has also faced accusations of small-mindedness and racism.
Campaign material in 2011, for example, featured the SVP’s mascot, a white goat called Zottel, butting black sheep out of the country. And in 2009, the party was behind a hugely controversial referendum on whether to ban the building of mosque minarets, which was approved by a 57 per cent majority.
Last week’s vote on immigration, meanwhile, was bitterly opposed by many business leaders and the Swiss political establishment, who warned it would cause labour shortages and damage the country’s reputation.
Valentin Vogt, president of the Swiss Employers’ Association, said the vote would send a discouraging signal to business. “What is the point of investing in Switzerland when it is not certain you can get qualified staff to carry out your plans?” he asked.
However, in Switzerland’s decentralised system of government, where most decisions are taken by referendum, populist initiatives cannot simply be ignored by the political elite. And in the vote itself, the SVP benefited from a well-financed campaign, 50 per cent of the costs being paid from Mr Blocher’s pocket, which produced the tightest of majorities at 50.3 per cent.
Such direct “people power” is viewed with envy by Euro-sceptics in Britain, where David Cameron complained last year of being powerless under EU law to stop Bulgarian and Romanian jobseekers.
So who is exactly is Mr Blocher? Is he, as supporters claim, a modern-day version of the Swiss anti-Habsburg freedom fighter, William Tell? Or, as critics say, is he simply a wealthy meddler, inventing an immigration crisis that does not even exist?
Certainly, to the orthodox-minded Brussels bureaucrat, he is probably the closest any European politician comes to resembling a James Bond-style master villain.
As well as his castle domain, which is owned by the family plastics empire, he has a personal fortune estimated at £2 billion and his own private television channel, where he holds forth at length from an armchair.
In person, though, Blocher is at pains to portray himself as just an ordinary Swiss businessman, for whom politics is a national duty just as military service is. When the Telegraph met him last week, it was not at his castle but at a mid-priced spa hotel in the peaks of the Bernese Oberland region, where he was holidaying with his wife, Silvia.
Together they looked just like another well-heeled Swiss couple, although in the hotel lift, a German guest in a sauna robe congratulated him on the referendum, lamenting that Germany could not do the same.
“We are not an extremist party,” insisted Mr Blocher, sipping tea beneath a painting of two Alpine cows. “With regard to the adverts with the black sheep and the white sheep, it is not a reference to skin colour, but to the expression of a being a black sheep in the family. When we say we want the black sheep must go, we mean criminals, not people from Africa.”
Nonetheless, it is unlikely that any mainstream political party in Britain would use such adverts, and in any event, Swiss cities still have little ethnic minority presence compared to the likes of London or Paris. Of the country’s eight million population, there are roughly 180,000 Asians and Turks, 180,000 from Balkans, and 70,000 Africans.
True, roughly one in five people are from elsewhere in Europe, and in a country that is historically isolated, even wealthy British bankers or German IT professionals can be seen as outsiders. But if Swiss immigration concerns are less urgent than those of other European countries, Mr Blocher wants it to stay that way.
“We have no ghettoes and none of the extreme Right parties that exist elsewhere in Europe,” he said. “Why is that? Two reasons. We have avoided having immigrants in concentrations like in Paris, when the Africans, for example, are all in the same place in a way that makes things dangerous. And we also have direct democracy — if people are not satisfied, they have the possibility to change things.”
The question, now, though, is how severe the EU’s response will be.
Brussels views the free movement treaty as part of a package of seven agreements, covering areas such as technological cooperation, agricultural trade and transport. And as Jean Asselborn, the Luxembourg foreign minister, put it last week, such agreements stand or fall together. “You can’t have privileged access to the European internal market and on the other hand, dilute free circulation,” he warned.
For Mr Blocher, though, the EU needs the Swiss as much as the other way around. Switzerland, he points out, is the bloc’s third biggest trading partner, and the road tunnels through the Swiss Alps are the conduit for much of Europe’s north-south trade. A trade war, he hints, will benefit nobody.
Others believe that Brussels has no choice but to play it tough. Not least because Eurosceptics will be watching for any sign of weakness — especially in Britain, where Mr Cameron has promised a referendum on EU membership in 2017.
“The EU will be under pressure to remove some of Switzerland’s privileges, as otherwise Eurosceptics in other countries, principally Britain, will assume you can pick and choose which bits of the EU that suit you,” said Anand Menon, a Europe expert at London’s Chatham House think tank.
Another option — already being mooted in the Swiss liberal press — is a re-run of last Sunday’s vote, a scenario that has echoes of how the EU backed a re-run of the 2007 Lisbon Treaty vote in Ireland in an effort to secure the “right” result. Mr Blocher describes such a prospect as an insult to the “intelligence” of ordinary Swiss people, although he suspects Brussels will encourage it.
In the meantime, he looks forward to seeing Britain vote in a referendum on the EU — and he points out in the wake of Switzerland’s decision, the land of Churchill would not longer be “going it alone”.
“I would be happy to see the British leave the EU,” he smiled. “It would give us a partner on the outside.”