Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Geneva Dispatch #1 Switzerland and the EU: Another “Ever Closer Union”?

To relatively little notice, the proposed European Constitution has garnered several more approvals this summer, following the well-publicized French and Dutch rejections in late May/early June. Latvia, Cyprus and Malta ratified it by parliamentary vote on June 2, June 30, and July 6, respectively. And, in the first popular referendum since the French and Dutch elections, on July 10 voters in Luxembourg approved the draft, with 56.52 percent voting yes. These decisions bring the number of approvals to thirteen.

In addition, here in Switzerland, voters in June approved closer ties in several respects with the EU, including joining the Schengen passport-free travel zone. This does not necessarily mean that Switzerland is abandoning its traditional Euroskepticism, however. Another EU-related referendum, more controversial than the June vote, will take place this fall. On September 25, Swiss voters will decide whether to extend the free movement already allowed to workers from the fifteen original EU member states to workers from the ten states that joined last year.

Membership in international institutions has been controversial in Switzerland. Despite hosting many of its offices and agencies in Geneva, Switzerland did not join the United Nations until 2002. Similarly, despite being surrounded by EU countries and the fact that, aside from the US, its major trading partners are all EU members, Switzerland has not joined the EU. In fact, Swiss voters rejected moves toward EU membership in both 1992 and 2001. The Swiss government supports eventual membership, but the decision requires voter approval and public sentiment remains opposed. The main concerns are that EU membership would be inconsistent with Swiss neutrality, would undermine the cherished system of direct democracy, and would cost the country, whose economy is in better shape than those of its EU neighbors, more than it stands to gain.

The Swiss government has, however, negotiated a series of bilateral agreements with the EU and Swiss voters have so far approved these agreements (including the one whose extension is at issue in September). Most recently, on June 5, 54.6 percent of Swiss voters said yes to joining the Schengen and Dublin accords, which provide for passport-free travel and increased cooperation on security, immigration and asylum. As a result, as of 2008, there will no longer be systematic identity checks at borders between Switzerland and the EU, although checks at airports will remain. (Customs controls at Swiss-EU borders will also continue, as Switzerland is not part of the European Customs Union.) Swiss police will gain access to EU criminal and immigration databases, and Switzerland will become part of a European-wide system coordinating asylum proceedings.

Swiss and EU officials, worried about a possible domino effect from the French and Dutch no votes, breathed a sigh of relief over the Swiss yes. They may have done so too soon, however. While some last-minute polls showed support for Schengen/Dublin slipping, many Swiss voters had cast their ballots by post before the French and Dutch elections. Thus, the impact of the French and Dutch no votes on Swiss voters may not be seen until September. Moreover, the issue of extending freedom of movement to workers from Eastern Europe is more controversial than the issues around Schengen/Dublin. Given that the June margin of victory was rather narrow, the parties favoring extension in September are facing a tough fight. A recent poll by the Demoscope Institute for the Swiss magazine “Facts” showed 30 percent favoring the extension, 26 percent opposed, and 44 percent undecided.

The right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) opposed joining Schengen/Dublin, arguing that it would cede decisionmaking power to EU bureaucrats and cause a flood of undesirables (criminals, illegal immigrants, cheap labor) to pour into the country. The SVP not surprisingly also opposes the proposed September extension. The campaign is likely to be, depending on one’s point of view, either colorful or demagogic. The SVP’s tactics before the June election included taking a Trojan horse around Switzerland and handing out handcuffs to passers-by on the streets. In the run-up to the June vote the SVP also played on fears of Swiss job losses, citing the specter of “Polish butchers,” who they argued would flood in through the open borders. This argument, the counterpart to the oft-cited “Polish plumbers” of the French no compaign, is sure to figure prominently in the fall. It will be interesting to see if their arguments resonate more, or less, this time around.

Typically, German-speaking Switzerland, particularly the rural east, has opposed increased integration with the EU and French-speaking Switzerland has supported it. This held true in June, when the German cantons, except for the urban centers of Zurich, Bern, Basel and Zug, voted strongly against Schengen/Dublin and the French cantons voted strongly in favor. However, this time around, the SVP’s argument that jobs will be lost to cheap Eastern European labor may find sympathetic ears in the French-speaking canton of Geneva, which has by far the highest unemployment rate in the country – 7.6 percent in June, compared to 3.6 percent nationwide. Also, French-speaking Switzerland may be less inclined in favor of Europe after the French no.

A Swiss no vote in September could have implications beyond the free movement of labor, both for Swiss-EU relations and for the EU more broadly. The EU still must ratify Swiss participation in Schengen/Dublin, and the EU foreign affairs commissioner cautioned after the June vote that this depended on the results in September. And with Euro-nerves on edge after the French and Dutch votes, politicians around the continent may look to the Swiss vote as a sign of whether the momentum toward an “ever closer” Europe can be reestablished.

--Elizabeth Kandravy Cassidy

1 Comments:

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3/08/2006 2:50 AM  

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