Andres Allemand – originally published in the Independent 14th November 2018
The “Swiss model” is often referred to by British politicians speaking about Brexit. Presumably this is because Switzerland never joined the EU. And because it is seen by many as the world champion of direct democracy.
Around 600 questions have been put to public vote in Switzerland since 1848 – mostly in the last few decades. Swiss people vote whenever the authorities want to modify the constitution. They can demand a ‘popular referendum’ on any law passed in parliament. On top of that, any citizen can launch a ‘popular initiative’ on any subject.
As a result, it is not uncommon to vote again and again on the same topic. The most dramatic example is maternity leave. It took six votes and 60 years for the country to agree on its position.
The principle itself was enshrined in the constitution in 1945 by a majority of men (women’s suffrage was only granted in 1971). A law was to be negotiated in parliament in order to create a new insurance system. However, it was extremely difficult to come up with a draft that the majority could support. When at last a compromise was submitted to the people in 1974 they refused it. Then again in 1984, 1987 and 1999 new attempts were rejected. It was only in 2004 that 55.4% of voters accepted a 14 week maternity leave.
So if a referendum like the Brexit vote was organised in Switzerland, nobody would be surprised to have to vote again on the law implementing the ‘divorce’ deal negotiated with the EU. As aforementioned, anyone can demand a ‘popular referendum’ to defy that law. All it takes is 50,000 signatures.
Another peculiarity of the Swiss system is that whenever a popular referendum is approved by the people, our parliament then has to decide how to draft a law to implement it. In doing so, they have to make sure it can be enforced and that it does not contradict other laws or treaties. Sometimes that seems impossible. So in order to respect what they believe is the ‘will’ of the people they take the liberty of interpreting very loosely the terms of the referendum (does that ring a bell?).
A perfect illustration of this is the 2014 popular initiative against ‘mass immigration’, which brought Switzerland pretty close to Britain’s current situation. The initiative, presented by the right wing populist Swiss People’s Party, was accepted by 50.3% of voters. It required a new law (to be adopted within three years) capping the number of immigrants and reintroducing quotas by country. If implemented, it would have violated the free movement treaty signed with the European Union, terminating automatically a group of six Swiss EU Bilateral treaties crucial for access to the single market.
That never happened. Switzerland did try to renegotiate a new free movement treaty with the EU, but the European Commission refused. So the swiss parliament drafted a law that forces employers to give priority to hiring Swiss nationals and residents in areas high unemployment in their region or sector. No capping, no quotas, no violation of the free movement treaty. Therefore Switzerland was not expelled from the European single market.
Obviously this infuriated the Swiss People’s Party. Their leadership threatened to launch a referendum against that law. But they never did, probably because they did not think they could win. They were not sure that voters would support them now it was clear Switzerland could lose access to the single market. In previous votes, Swiss citizens clearly voted in favour of free movement, so you can see why they had a crisis of confidence.
The story does not end there. After the popular initiative against mass immigration was voted in 2014, a group of opponents launched their own popular initiative to try to cancel it. They collected the 100,000 signatures required, but in the end they stopped the procedure because the bilateral treaties were not threatened any more. They did not want to risk a new vote that might make the situation worse.
Does all this sound too complicated? Absolutely! But that is the price to pay if you want to respect the will of the people. The Swiss are prepared to vote again and again to make sure parliament correctly interprets their will. Perhaps that is something for the British Parliament to bear in mind.
Andres Allemand is a Swiss journalist who usually writes for La Tribune de Geneve.