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Paranoia and the Swiss Immigration Vote


It is the great dilemma about democracy.  Left in certain hands, it can become a beastly thing.  America’s founders, notably James Adams, were suspicious of its vulgar appeal, its tendency to succumb to tyranny.  But is that the point of it?  Like free will, its existence is bound to put us on the path to doom and depravity at certain points in time.  Such independence comes with it the power of self harm.

Enter, then, the canton system in Switzerland, a country that has managed to combine a democratic system with a good deal of paranoia and knee-jerk populism.  What matters in that context is that it is democratic and seen as democratic.  This idea is fed by the Swiss themselves, who have been convinced that equality exists, that the voices of everyday citizens will be heard, and no elite interests exist.

Such a narrative on vibrant sovereign will is a convenient fiction.  The Swiss peoples did not come together to plot a singular state to the rhythm of democracy. They came together out of disliking everything else.  As a piece in Der Spiegel (Feb 10) by David Nauer observes, “The German-language areas don’t want to belong to Germany, the Suisse romande don’t want to be part of France and the Ticinesi don’t want to become part of Italy. Instead, they are Swiss.”  It was an identity built on rejection.

That the “yes” vote in a referendum favouring the reintroduction of immigration quotas on those coming from the European Union should have just scraped in should not be a shock.  What was surprising was the smaller margin – 50.3 percent.  “Faced with the negative effects of the pressures caused by immigration,” suggested the Tribune de Geneve, “voters wanted to send out a strong signal”.

The vote split the nation.  The French-speaking West generally favoured an open immigration policy – they had more reason than any to be concerned by any supposed “negative” effects, given their greatest exposure.  The Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, estranged from the Swiss centre of power and policy, had no reason to reward the cosmopolitans with what they wanted.  Symbolically, at least, they feel left out (Worldcrunch, Feb 10).

The SVP or Swiss People’s Party, who initiated the referendum, was thrilled at the result.  Their campaign was one of lacing old fears with the sweetness of reason.  The trains, for example, were getting too full.  Congestion and crowding were becoming problems.  All of this have produced what the Swiss have called Dichtestress – “crowding stress”.  As with so much that comes from irrational impulse, those who voted for the initiative had no reason to be affected at all – distinctly free of crowding stress.  But perception is everything.

The business minded in Switzerland will be worried, bearing witness to a patient keen in suiciding.  Energy, research and agriculture are set for a squeeze.  While the Swiss have been stringently opposed to being in the EU, they have partaken of its offerings via movement of goods and people. The trading area offers them a huge market.  Most Swiss goods find a home across the border. It also offers them a pool of qualified labour which underpins numerous company agreements.

Even financial Zurich has lost some of its dullness even if the restaurant and bar scene proves a strain on the wallet.  It comes down, in large part, to a credo embraced by the EU and the Swiss business and political powers: that of freedom of movement.

Little wonder, then, that those in Brussels have been shaking their heads at those in Bern, with whom they have been long negotiations with.  As the European Commission explained, “This goes against the principle of free movement of persons between the EU and Switzerland.  The EU will examine the implications of the initiative on EU-Swiss relations as a whole” (BBC, Feb 9).  Reproaches are bound to follow.

For all of Switzerland’s success, there was that old incoherent feeling that something was just not quite right.  Immigration brings with it changes, some of them “negative”, which in the Swiss context is simply the fear of any change.  The “yes” vote was one aimed squarely, as the Corriere del Ticino explained, at “the government, parliament, the business community, trade unions and the overwhelming majority of the political parties”.

Some of the blame, as far as it can be found, must rest with those groups who fell asleep at the wheel of the European issue.  The SVP cunningly and destructively pounced on the issue – bagging and mocking Europe tends to get parties votes these days, and they proved no different. For some time, economic liberals were sharing the same bed as the SVP, a dangerous arrangement, if ever there was one.

The grand paradox of having wealth doesn’t lie in its grant of greater security.   It creates, rather, an acute fear of losing it. It is not money itself that is the root of any evil per se – it is its possession that complicates the picture.  Those who fear losing economic primacy are bound to impose measures achieving that very fact.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:



Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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