When we elect a new parliament on 18 October, it is at the citizens’ hands who is going to be member of parliament in Berne as the people’s representative. Therefore, it is important to think well to whom you are giving your vote. The times in which we find ourselves, are presenting us with major challenges. There are major problems in Europe and the EU countries, and the conflict in Ukraine has suddenly brought the risk of a European war within the bounds of possibility. It ultimately depends on us, the citizens, where and how Switzerland is going to position itself in this situation. Do we want to remain independent, keep our budget in order and protect our political system against attacks from outside, or do we want to offer our services to the EU? This step would have far-reaching consequences for us and for our system of government.
If candidates are asked about the peculiarities of the Swiss political system in a civics examination, they usually name direct democracy first of all, and neutrality, federalism or multilingualism of Switzerland come second. This is no coincidence, because there is no other country on earth where the population has so many political participation rights as in Switzerland. This is conspicuous. To be sure there are other states, for example Germany, that offer possibilities to subject certain political decisions to a referendum at the level of the municipalities or the “Länder” (federal states). This is notably the case in Bavaria, because here the Social Democrat Wilhelm Hoegner was the Chairman of the Constitutional Council which drafted a new constitution for Bavaria after the Second World War. Wilhelm Hoegner had been living in exile in Switzerland during the war.1 But there is no country with as extensive possibilities of participation as there are in Switzerland. The citizens can participate in decisions right up to the national level. In the countries of the European Union we find only presidential or parliamentary democracies, in which the people are directly involved in political decisions other than the periodically held elections, only in the rarest exceptional cases. None of these countries knows the right of initiative at the national level. Therefore it is indeed direct democracy which makes Switzerland unique.
We can say that seen from this perspective, Switzerland is a special case with a system that prevents it from fitting in any supranational entity in which citizens are above all administrated.
You can only understand Switzerland if you start with its citizens. Because ever since the founding of the Swiss Confederation in the Middle Ages its citizens have enjoyed a high degree of freedom, and this manifests itself in the delegation of of a lot of responsibility to the individual.
This transfer of responsibility rests on the conviction that, as a rule, citizens will not abuse the trust placed in them but support their community in a positive way. This way of looking at things can already be found in the Middle Ages. So for example in Grisons it was the farmers who actively participated in the development of the political system. They were the rightful holders of political power here. They were also responsible for defending their communes against attacks. This sort of peasant army proved to be more powerful than foreign mercenary armies.2 They knew what to defend, namely their relatively high degree of freedom and self-determination.
In the world of today the distinction between tax evasion and tax fraud, which is not understood in countries like Germany, France, Italy and so on, is an example that shows us quite plainly the fundamental confidence of the state in its citizens. The fellow citizen is seen as a fellow human being, who has an interest in the common good. Thus, the taxpayer is not eyed with suspicion and seen as a potential tax evader, as is customary in other countries. If we compare this tax system with that of other countries, we come to realise that this view is more promising. In spite of repeated attempts to spend more than has been collected, Switzerland has had its finances under control up to the present day. When the voters said yes to the “Schuldenbremse” (debt brake) they put a stop to any irresponsible money handling.
Direct democracy will only work if there are citizens who have been influenced by school and education so as to make them take an interest in the fate of their country and to come to grips constructively with the political affairs concerning it. We must have the will to participate in political decision-making if we are to continue to safeguard and to live direct democracy.
It took great efforts and tenacious struggle until the direct democratic elements were established both at cantonal and federal level in Switzerland’s constitutions – for who would like to surrender power? There was an uphill struggle in the individual cantons until the privileged were willing to allow “their subjects” to participate in the government.3
Nevertheless, the Swiss culture and tradition was different from for instance that in the German Empire or in the later German experiments to establish a democratic form of government. For not only a good education is a basic component of the functioning of direct democracy, but also an attitude of the citizens among themselves which is characterised by equity, as well as a militia system which ensures that even politicians remain part of the general society in their feelings and behaviour, and that they do not drift away out of touch with reality feeling superiour to their constituents, as we see it in other parliamentary democracies. Apart from the fact that you can meet our parliamentarians regularly in means of public transport during the sessions – it is not uncommon that on a stroll through Berne you may meet one of our Federal Councillors – instead of being surrounded by bodyguards as seen in other countries. This would be impossible in our neighbouring countries. There politicians are chauffeured to parliament in black limousines, shielded from the public and remote from their voters. Citizens do not get to see their elected representatives except on TV or at election rallies.
Direct democracy allows you to make decisions that are supported by the majority of citizens. Likewise, Switzerland has no system of government and opposition, as is common in parliamentary democracies, but a concordance system, even though this has lately been whirled slightly off balance. But for a long time the Federal Council, the Swiss government, was made up of delegates of all those major parties which directed the destinies of the country. This has proved to be a stabilising factor for our country and also acted as a brake on individual political power cravings.
For centuries Switzerland has not pursued an aggressive foreign policy but catered mainly for the stability and security within the country. When you think of the “Sonderbund” War in 1847, you will see that this was a highly challenging task. Whether the Battle of Marignano is crucial to this insight, is not the subject of the dispute here.4 Sufficient to say only this: The rejection of power politics is a fundamental component of modern Switzerland, and this fact cannot be argued away, not even by calling individual historical events into question. Those who aim at a total revocation regarding this issue have other intentions with Switzerland than to strengthen its role as a sovereign, neutral, direct democratic small state, which, because of its active neutrality, is often the only state left on the international stage which is able to offer a place for negotiations.
Switzerland’s multilingualism and its location in the heart of Europe have supported the idea to walk the path of neutrality. Unlike other “neutral” countries, Switzerland has not only invoked neutrality for its own advantage, but neutrality is a fundamental component of the Swiss conception of state and it belongs to Switzerland like direct democracy and federalism. In regular surveys nearly one hundred per cent of the Swiss population regularly confirm their consent to neutrality. Last year it was 96 per cent.5 It would be a flight of fancy to imagine that a country could be neutral without being armed. For this reason the forefathers of the Swiss federal state stipulated that everlasting armed neutrality be one of the pillars of our political system. Those who call this into question with the spurious argument that they believe it to be antiquated in today’s world are following their own agenda. The recent years’ conflicts have confirmed the importance of neutrality, more than ever.
Yet, neutrality does not only have an outside function but it also gives reassurance inside the country, which is no mean feat when you consider our different linguistic and cultural regions. Thus the spirit of the Red Cross “Tutti fratelli”, all are brothers, arises precisely from this conception.6 The Red Cross movement, as it has evolved since its establishment in 1863, would not have been possible but for this basis. While neutrality is complied with, both the ICRC and Switzerland can fulfil their special role with respect to humanitarian commitment. This means that the ICRC may be active in political contexts that allow no other relief agencies to be on site. The same also applies to Switzerland, which was clearly demonstrated last year when Switzerland held the presidency of the OSCE. Thanks to its neutral negotiating position it was possible to adopt the Minsk agreement, thus launching a process which does bring – however small – benefits today, i.e. a year later. Switzerland’s neutrality is therefore something extraordinary in the interplay of nations, something which the international community can not do without. Were Switzerland to be a member of the EU, it would have to support the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), which embodies nothing less than a military assistance pact and which demands solidarity in action of its member states in the event of war. There is not a trace of neutrality.7
If we look at Switzerland’s national policy foundations and contrast them with the challenges we are facing, one thing has to be noted: The merging of Switzerland in a supranational organisation such as the EU or the NATO would lead to a loss of its basic specific features. The developments of recent years and particularly of recent weeks and months have demonstrated to many sceptics how the EU works. The arguing of EU advocates that if Switzerland was a member of the EU, it could then contribute and help shape the future is a weak argument. The sanctions against Russia and the crisis in Greece as well as the refugee crisis have shown that the small EU countries have no voice at all. The larger countries, the Big Boys, determine the course according to the old undemocratic principle: He who pays the piper calls the tune. It is certainly no mistaken policy for Switzerland to keep on the right side of its neighbours, but when it gets straight down to the nitty-gritty for our country, we need personalities who stand up again and say, thus far and no further.
Direct democracy thrives on the activity of the citizenship. It is entirely in their hands where the journey will go. Whether Switzerland will continue to be a sovereign, federal, direct democratic, and neutral state solving problems in a temperate way and for the benefit of its citizens, ultimately depends on us, the citizens, ourselves. Let us use our voice and speak up when it is a matter of our country and ultimately of our freedom. This is easily lost, but to recover it would take decades, if indeed it were ever to succeed. •
1 cf. Wilfried Scharnagel. “Bayern kann es auch alleine” ( Bavaria Can Also Do It Alone), p. 64
2 cf. Rudolph C. Head. “Demokratie im frühneuzeitlichen Graubünden”, (Early Modern Democracy in the Grisons), pp. 13.
3 cf. Benjamin Adler. “Entstehung der direkten Demokratie”, (Emergence of direct democracy, pp. 102.
4 cf. Current Concerns no 9/10 , 31.3.2015
5 cf. “Sicherheitsbericht ETH 2014” (Safety Report ETH 2014).
6 cf. Henri Dunant. “Eine Erinnerung an Solferino” (A Memory of Solferino).
7 cf. box
“A framework agreement would mean a close entanglement with the EU. The expected EU dictat would be recognized to its full extent only at a late point of time and finally the Framework Agreement would yet be regarded as impractical and unworthy for Switzerland. [...] Those who advocate a comprehensive Framework Agreement and with it the prospect of a later accession to the EU, renounce neutrality, sovereignty and independence for the future and help to undermine direct democracy, federalism and communal autonomy. Switzerland in the EU would be a significantly different Switzerland than that of today. The (institutional) Framework Agreement expected by the EU must be evaluated from this perspective.”
Source: “Neue Zürcher Zeitung“ from 6.10.2015
“The Union’s competence in matters of common foreign and security policy shall cover all areas of foreign policy and all questions relating to the Union’s security, including the progressive framing of a common defence policy that might lead to a common defence.”
Source: EU treaty art. 24, par. 1
“The Member States shall support the Union’s external and security policy actively and unreservedly in a spirit of loyalty and mutual solidarity and shall comply with the Union’s action in this area.”
Source: EU treaty art. 24, par. 3
“If a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power…”
Source: EU treaty art. 42, par. 7
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