On Vandalist Politics

Putting aside the discomfort of being an immigrant in a mildly xenophobic land, and the hypothetical ballistic solution to Switzerland’s furr’ner problem, I’ll add my voice to the growing chorus of confusion and ask what, in reality, just happened. So here, translated into English, is the new Article 121a of the Constitution of the Swiss Confederation:

Article 121a Immigration Control

  1. Switzerland controls immigration independently.
  2. The number of residence permits for foreigners in Switzerland is limited by annual quota and a maximum limit. The maximum limit applies to asylum-seekers as well. The right to settlement, family union, and access to social services are subject to limitation.
  3. Quotas are to be defined to the advantage of Swiss citizens in the economic interest of Switzerland. Cross-border commuters are covered as well. The application of an employer, level of integration in Swiss society, and financial independence are especially influential criteria [in the decision to grant a residence permit].
  4. No treaty may be signed in opposition to this article.
  5. The details are a matter of law.

121(a)2 and 121(a)3 define the high-level framework for immigration control. For countries that do limit immigration, the arrangement here is not particularly controversial. “Limitation of social services” would be a dog-whistle to the right wing, were it not being shouted through a megaphone, and is predicated on the assumption1 that migrants come into the country for the welfare. But otherwise, so far, so good.

However, quotas aren’t really the point, as made clear by 121(a)1 and 121(a)4: the issue isn’t immigration, it’s Europe and Switzerland’s place therein. This article was designed for one reason alone, to force a showdown with Brussels. 121(a)5 seems to acknowledge this: it’s completely superfluous and serves only to underscore that the initiants, lead by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), don’t care about the details. The details are a mess to be cleaned up by others.

121(a) is not democracy in action. It’s vandalism by poster campaign.

It’s the same kind of vandalism that SVP-authored Article 72.3 (“The construction of minarets is forbidden”) is. And since the treaties that are now forbidden under 121(a)4 don’t just cover immigration, but trade, education, research, power, transport, and so on, Switzerland is now in the position of being surrounded by a jurisdiction with which it has no secure legal relationship. The treaties are still in place (the temporary conditions in the initiative include Article 191.9.1: “Treaties that contradict Article 121(a) are to be renegotiated to conform thereto within three years of ratification”), but it doesn’t appear to me that Brussels has any incentive whatsoever to renegotiate them. Indeed, given the nativist wave sweeping the continent it’s unclear that free movement of persons, one of the core ideals of the EU, would survive the political firestorm unleashed by the EU allowing Switzerland access to its markets without Switzerland allowing EU citizens to live here. So even if negotiation were possible in happier times, Brussels has a strong incentive to take a hard line now.

The initiants joyously celebrate their victory for Swiss independence and the principle of sovereignty, dismissing my line of reasoning as something between paranoid and unpatriotic, and will tell  anyone who takes them seriously enough to listen that Switzerland is in the strong position here, that Europe needs Switzerland more than Switzerland needs Europe, and other such flagwavery. I hope for our sake that they’re right, that we didn’t just watch trillions of francs in trade in goods and labor go up in smoke. But it still sounds to me like the type of inward-looking willful ignorance that you’d expect from someone who talks about an accidental trip to Basel Badischer Bahnhof2 in the mid ’70s as “won i mal im Dütsche gsi bin3”.

So, what now?

I’m guessing that, as usual, my most paranoid analysis of the situation will turn out to be overblown, that economic conditions in Switzerland will not get as bad as they did the last time Switzerland rebuffed an invitation to join a customs area by which it was surrounded, that we will not have to start planting potatoes in the street4.

The present situation is painted as a showdown between Switzerland and the EU, which is a little simplistic, but let’s go with it. If the EU blinks, things get much more complicated for migrants in Europe, but this might in the long term work out for the best: the vision in Brussels of a Federal State of Europe was always a little aggressive and lacking in democratic legitimacy, regardless of its good intentions. Simply declaring that there is no difference between Portugal and Estonia, between Ireland and Croatia, between Germany and France, does not make it so, and we probably need a few generations to better mix the societies before we finish the project of mixing the politics.

If the EU holds to its principles, though, my left-field prediction is this will be the moment that Switzerland’s accession to the European Union became inevitable. Post-1848, the idea of an Independent Switzerland has always been more of a patriotic fantasy than a description of reality. Since we set off down the Bilateral Way, the Swiss economy has simply become too integrated to turn back without a whole lot of pain, and people will always vote their pocketbook when they have to, even people less fundamentally practical than the Swiss. While I’d appreciate the irony of the SVP forcing Swiss accession, I’m not sure I’d appreciate the result.

But we shall see.

1 While families “with an immigration background” receive benefits at a higher proportion than their population would suggest, immigrants as a whole are net-contributors to the social insurance scheme, so as with most things in politics, you can cite data here for any viewpoint you care to have.

2 Basel has two “main” train stations. Basel Bad is so named because it was built by the State Railways of the Grand Duchy of Baden, which through a series of consolidations and privatizations became Deutsche Bahn. The treaty between Baden and Basel is still in effect, and leads to the station being partially extraterritorial: it’s on Swiss soil, but is part of the German (and therefore EU) customs area.

3 “That time I went to Germany.” I’m honestly not sure anyone in Switzerland is this inward-looking, though, no matter how well the image of fierce indifference to things across the Doubs or the Rhine plays in politics.

4 Surrounded by the Axis, Switzerland got very serious about food security in 1940, eventually nearly tripling its cultivated land area. We were locavores way before it was cool.

Brian Trammell
Brian Trammell
Scientist, Synthesist, Cyclist, SRE