This metaphor expressed by the Swiss historian Oliver Zimmer in a recent radio interview1 has had a profound effect on me. The hedgehog as a well-known symbol for the independent and idiosyncratic small state of Switzerland, its spines, retracted towards peaceful neighbours and used against unfriendly attacks, symbolising Switzerland able to defend itself. In contrast, to this there is the EU colossus (or any other great power) as a bulky and clumsy dinosaur, steam rolling and levelling the variety of life around it.
For the New Year, I wish us Swiss, as well as all other peoples of the world, that our politicians and diplomats enter into negotiations with other states and especially with major powers with a little more courage and self-confidence.
“It’ s too high a price to pay: It’s about sovereignty”
“In our country the term sovereignty [...] is – like neutrality – used as if it was the gospel truth. But no one knows what it stands for exactly.” This statement comes from someone who served, after all, as a Swiss Federal Councillor for eleven years (1998–2009), Pascal Couchepin. A Federal Councillor who doesn’t know what sovereignty is? How could he represent us in our affairs? Regarding the framework agreement that his successors in the Federal Council (at least some of them) want to conclude with the EU, Couchepin says: “What do we gain, what do we lose? We lose sovereignty. But without a framework treaty we lose even more sovereignty, because our prosperity which frees people from material worries will decrease.”2
As if Switzerland’s sovereignty could be handled like an arithmetical problem! Oliver Zimmer brings the confusion of minds caused by economic arithmetic games to an end when he first of all states: “The EU is not an economic project, but a political one.” And furthermore: “I think dividing between sovereignty and prosperity is a false dichotomy always constructed there. Of course, this is also a political argument. If there was a dichotomy, Switzerland would be poorer than the EU. As we know, this is not the case; on the contrary, it is the other way round. The internal market is not just a market, it is about membership in a political structure. That is something quite different from a trade agreement.” The interviewer, Iwan Lieberherr, referred to the Swiss National Council’s discussion in the winter session on the three topics of wage protection, the EU Citizenship Directive and state aids, which the Federal Council wants to “settle” with Brussels, remarking hereto: “I think that you, Mr Zimmer, would talk about the bigger issue anyway, about the loss of co-determination.” Indeed, one should increasingly address the fundamental dimension of the EU, Zimmer said: “Especially the European Court of Justice, and this is recognised in expert circles, is the political spearhead of EU supranationalism. The ECJ is a political court, not a court as we think of it. [...] It behaves as a constitutional court, it constitutes the treaties, treats them like constitutions, and it also interferes in national legislation.” The Court of Arbitration is, strictly speaking, “eyewash. In fact, the European Court of Justice has the final decision-making power in this whole agreement.”
Oliver Zimmer concludes: “It’s too high a price to pay: It’s about sovereignty.”3
Request for more national sovereignty in many European states
It is well known that not only the small state of Switzerland is struggling for its sovereignty. On 17 February 2020, David Frost, the British negotiator in charge of the Herculean task of Britain’s exit from EU together with Michel Barnier (for the EU), gave a noteworthy lecture at the Université libre of Brussells.4 Among other things, he pointed out that the request for national decision making and the revival of the nation state was not only to be observed in Britain, but also in various other European states: “Brexit is the most obvious example for that, but who can deny that we see something a bit like it in different forms across the whole Continent of Europe? I don’t think it is right to dismiss this just as a reaction to austerity or economic problems or a passing phase, or something to be ‘seen off’ over time. I believe it is something deeper.” At the core is the question of regainig sovereignity. Frost says: “Sovereignty is about the ability to get your own rules right in a way that suits our own conditions.”
Frost addresses two other important aspects of national sovereignty missing in the EU – democratic co-determination of citizens and the greater flexibility of state institutions: “There are other broader advantages to running your own affairs. One obvious one is that it is much easier to get people involved in taking decisions. Another, less obvious advantage, is the ability to change those decisions. My experience of the EU is that it has extreme difficulty in reversing bad decisions it takes.”
Acoording to Frost an important reason why the majority of the British voted to leave, was that “it was always going to feel a bit unnatural to a lot of people to be governed by an organisation whose institutions seemed created by design not than by evolution, and which vested authority outside the country elsewhere."
How would it going to feel to the Swiss population? With the framework agreement, we – even as a non-member of the EU – would be controlled by EU bodies, especially the EU Commission and the ECJ, to an extent that can’t really be assessed today. This is neither in the interest of the people in the UK, nor in Switzerland, nor elsewhere.
On 24 December, one week before the end of the transition period, the free trade agreement between Brussels and London was signed which returns sovereignty to Great Britain notably by exempting the state from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. On this the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” wrote: “The fact that the Court plays no role is also a consequence of the fact that the agreement contains no EU law and the British have less access to the EU market or to EU agencies than, for example, Switzerland.”5 Translated into laymen’s terms this is a schoolmasterly warning to us freedom-loving Swiss: Don’t pride yourself upon getting out a similarly advantageous treaty for Switzerland! A counterweight was the first online commentary in the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”: “I would like to see this agreement for Switzerland. I would also like to see this agreement for Switzerland. Free trade and good cooperation, yes, but no far-reaching surrender of sovereignty, its own legislation and its tried and tested democratic processes. The advantages of the direct internal market are too marginal for that.”
Swiss model just right for the needs of the time
But – as the inevitable objection goes – in the globalised world, global solutions are needed for transnational problems. The question also came up in the interview with Oliver Zimmer: “Can’t we say that the world has moved closer together in recent years, and that there are problems in the world that can no longer be solved in the nation state, but which have to be tackled in supranational organisations?”
Zimmer’s answer: “That’s one of the ideas from a political science seminar, that you have to form big blocs that problems can be solved. Fact is, that the global problems that we have to solve, certainly must be solved through international cooperation. But that doesn’t mean that you have to join a federal state-like body like the EU”. He did not want to deny anyone the right to feel like a world citizen, Zimmer said. But: “I believe that most people are not radical universalists [...]. Most people need some kind of geographical relatedness and want to be politically and democratically active within a limited community. I believe that this model ultimately creates more accountability than such a wonderful ideal that sounds good but is relatively non-committal in reality.”
For Oliver Zimmer, the Swiss model is exactly right, even in today’s world: “As far as Switzerland is concerned, with federalism, direct democracy, bottom-up communal organisation, you can see that it is an incredibly modern structure, which is very much in line with the needs of the time.”6
Framework agreement as antechamber to EU accession
The Federal Council’s statement that with the framework agreement he only wants “to put the bilateral way on a long-term, solid basis and to open the way to its further development”7 is not made less false by further repetition. The Federal Council is diligently supported by parts of politics and the federal administration as well as by the large corporations. Martin Janssen, entrepreneur and professor emeritus of economics of the financial market at the University of Zurich, puts in a nutshell what drives them: “It is to be expected that politicians and the administration will consent to the framework agreement. In this way, the electorate can be effectively levered out in many areas and taxes can be further increased: the dream of many civil servants and politicians. And that suppliers of European communities or representatives of big banks and pharmaceuticals mostly consent to the agreement is not surprising because either the market access or prices or both (and thus implicitly also bonuses) are guaranteed by the state.”8
In the meantime, however, more and more Swiss politicians, entrepreneurs and academics reject the framework agreement for fundamental reasons, as reported in Current Concerns of 28 October 2020.9 Professor Oliver Zimmer states in the interview: “The framework agreement is not the continuation of the Bilateral Agreements, it is effectively the antechamber of EU membership.” Given that the agreement can factually not be terminated it can only be exited through the accession door. According to the Guillotine clause in Art. 22, para. no. 2 of the draft, with the termination of the agreement also all agreements that refer to it – i. e. the five most important of Bilateral Agreements I as well as agreements to be concluded in future – would cease to be in force within six months.
Oliver Zimmer rightly criticises the lack of an honest debate in Switzerland: In his opinion, the advocates of EU accession should finally be open about their views. Then we would have a real discussion, because the majority of the population does not want accession. “For me it would be important that this debate would be conducted openly and honestly, instead of always pretending that with the framework agreement democracy will simply continue as before. No, it is a fundamental break with what we have now.”
Whoever wants to negotiate successfully must be sure of his own cause
For many Swiss it is a constant annoyance to see how the Federal Council repeatedly “forgets” which side of the table he and the Swiss negotiating-team are sitting on. The EU refuses to renegotiate any point in the framework agreement, one repeatedly hears from Federal Bern. Yes, it will certainly refuse it if the Federal Council gives in in advance and the mainstream media eagerly second it.
The British are apparently doing better: They are not so easily impressed by the bangs from Brussels. That doesn’t really fit the Swiss EU turbos because the electorate might notice that it is possible to oppose and stand up to the EU bureaucracy.
And already we hear the prophets of doom saying that Great Britain is much bigger and politically more important and a far more important trading partner for the EU than Switzerland. This makes us think of the old Confederates: If they had allowed themselves to be impressed by the Habsburgs or by Charles the Bold just because they had much larger armies than they did, they would never have been able to defeat them and would not have been recognised throughout Europe as capable fighters. Well, fortunately, today we are not dealing with a battlefield, but with a negotiating table. We could be a bit more courageous. Unless you don’t want any changes to the framework agreement at all – although in its current form it is undoubtedly disadvantageous for our country in many respects and crushes our sovereignty.
Let us read the general mood with which British negotiator David Frost approached further negotiations in February this year after his country left the EU: “Personally, I believe that it is good for a country and its people if they decide their own fate and it depends on their own decisions. […] If you are responsible for your own policies, you get better results. That is the reason why we continue to approach the upcoming negotiations with great confidence. We do not allow ourselves to be deterred by hints that there will be frictions, that there will be greater obstacles. We know that, we have factored in, and we continue to look ahead – to what we can achieve in the future. That is also the reason why we are not prepared to compromise on some fundamental points of our negotiating position.”10
We have never heard such tones from the Swiss Federal Councillors and their negotiators (Pascale Bäriswyl, Roberto Balzaretti, Livia Leu and whatever their name is), although actually every business course teaches that a sure and confident demeanor is the key of every successful negotiation.
In the radio conversation with Oliver Zimmer, this problem was briefly and clearly classified. Question from Iwan Lieberherr: “Is Great Britain actually more self-confident in the negotiations than Switzerland, and also more successful?” Oliver Zimmer: “You’re right: in my opinion, Switzerland should have been more self-confident from the start. I think here we have the problem that large parts of the administration are in favour of the framework agreement, and large parts of the political establishment in Switzerland are also in favour of the framework agreement – at least in former times. This has led to a lack of self-confidence.”
Meeting on an equal footing – for the benefit of all
It remains to be seen, what kind of “community of peace and values” the EU is, that it does not want to allow a member state to exercise the right to terminate an international treaty? What kind of understanding of democracy is it when you try to force a non-member to become more closely involved by applying massive pressure? David Frost wishes the EU “to find a way to deal with its neighbours as friends and truly sovereign equals.” A vision worth considering for a more humane and peaceful future!
The sovereign nation state, in cooperation with other states, is better able to tackle global problems more flexibly and sustainably than a power bloc: Because cooperation on an equal basis is human nature, solutions found cooperativly are always superior those found by applying pressure and coercion. From the perspective of humanity, there is no reason, why great powers could not meet other (even smaller) nations on an equal footing. For the good of all, including their own people. •
1 Lieberherr, Iwan. “Für eine selbstbewusste Schweiz.” (For a self-confident Switzerland) Interview with Oliver Zimmer; in: Radio SRF. Tagesgespräch of 18 December 2020. Oliver Zimmer is a Swiss-British historian. He has taught Modern European History at the University of Oxford since 2005. Zimmer studied history, sociology and political theory at the University of Zurich and holds a PhD from the London School of Economics and Political Science.
2 Tribelhorn, Marc; Neuhaus, Christina. “Wenn es Krieg gibt, können Sie nicht mit direkter Demokratie und Föderalismus den Gegenangriff organisieren”. (If there is war, you cannot organise the counterattack with direct democracy and federalism.) Interview with Pascal Couchepin; in: Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 7 December 2020
3 Lieberherr, Iwan. “Für eine selbstbewusste Schweiz.” (For a self-confident Switzerland) Interview with Oliver Zimmer; in: Radio SRF. Tagesgespräch of 18 December 2020.
4 David Frost lecture: “Reflections on the revolutions in Europe”. Academic lecture in Brussels. Gov.UK of 17 Fwebruary 2020
5 Nuspliger, Niklaus; Steinvorth, Daniel. “‘Merry Brexmas’ – das Freihandelsabkommen zwischen der EU und Grossbritannien ist da.” (“Merry Brexmas” – the free trade agreement between the EU and the UK is here.” in: NZZ online of 24 December 2020
6 Lieberherr, Iwan. “Für eine selbstbewusste Schweiz.” (For a self-confident Switzerland) Interview with Oliver Zimmer; in: Radio SRF. Tagesgespräch of 18 December 2020.
8 Janssen, Martin. “Es gibt gute wirtschaftliche Gründe gegen das Rahmenabkommen.” ( There are good economic reasons against the framework agreement) in: Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 12 July 2019
9 “Switzerland-EU framework agreement: Better end the negotiations with dignity …”
10 David Frost lecture: “Reflections on the revolutions in Europe.” Academic lecture in Brussels. Gov.UK of 17 February 2020
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