European Integration and Swiss Identities
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Please bear with me when I repeat points of Swiss history, of its formation and construction, that you may already be familiar with. I think the two words I just used already express its essence. Switzerland is a political construction that had never been pre-defined by geographic, ethnic or linguistic borders. If there is a cultural or a linguistic identity, this is the consequence and not the basis of political integration. The German Swiss dialects, for example, are local dialects, as are other dialects in the German speaking territories, but the fact that there was a political border between Switzerland and the Holy Roman Empire reinforced the wish of the speakers on both sides to distinguish themselves from the speakers of the other side. The formation of Switzerland was a sort of puzzle: little by little the territories, more or less independent states, came together and conquered or bought, sometimes alone, sometimes together, subject territories. No center, no capital, no common government existed for 550 years. The Confederation was attractive enough for its members as a guarantee for security. But the disagreements were so notorious that in most cases it was impossible to define a coherent foreign policy. The beautiful word to describe the lack of foreign policy is, as you know, neutrality. After splitting up Switzerland into a Catholic part, made up of the peasant cantons, and a reformed part, made up of the city cantons (Bern, Zurich, Basel, Schaffhausen), neutrality was definitely the only way to prevent international conflicts from dismembering the Confederation. Since the congress of Vienna, Swiss neutrality has been recognized by international law.
In 1848, the modern Swiss Confederation was founded by a new liberal constitution, whose basis has remained unchanged to the present day. The constitution was introduced after a short civil war between the Catholic and the Protestant cantons, whose disagreement had previously paralyzed the country. The constitution was a compromise between the two parts. For the first time, Switzerland received a central government, a central administration, and a capital, and became an economic region without customs to pay at the borders of each canton. But this centralism was balanced by federalism. Thus this centralization and unification, the first in Swiss history, were very incomplete. Even today, for most Swiss, it is more important to be a citizen of a particular canton, than it is to be Swiss. The identity of Switzerland as a whole remains a problem. What holds these cantons together? An answer you often hear is that the Swiss Confederation allows the cantons to keep their own, individual identities. This is proven by the French-speaking cantons, to which cantonal autonomy is especially important—an autonomy, by the way, which would be impossible to sustain in France. French centralism therefore is one of the best guarantees of the integration of the French cantons in Switzerland.
Perhaps the political system of Switzerland, the concordant democracy, reflects the same idea: majorities must always be built up by the cooperation of minorities, and one tries to integrate as many minorities into one's cause as possible. The Federal Council, that is, the Swiss federal Government, demonstrates what that means. It consists of seven members. Each member is elected by the federal parliament and, in turn, directs a ministry. The president of this federal Council is nominated in rotation for a one-year term. He takes the chair at the Federal Council meetings but otherwise he has no special power. For about thirty years the three major political parties of Switzerland have been represented by two members (the Radical-Democratic, the Christian-Democratic and the Social-Democratic parties); a fourth party (the Swiss People's Party) is represented by one member. Thus you could say that about 70 percent of the voters are represented in the government. Usually at least two federal counselors are from the French part of Switzerland, and often there is one from the Italian speaking Canton of Ticino.
Nevertheless there exists a right-left opposition. It separates the three bourgeois parties (the Radical-Democratic, the Christian-Democratic and the Swiss People's Party) on one side, and the Social-Democratic party with its ally, the green party, on the other side. The situation of the Social-Democratic party therefore, is very delicate: in the parliament it is often in the opposition, but it is represented in the government. Because of this complex situation, the party sometimes debates whether it should leave the Federal Council. A very complicated event is the election of the federal counselors of this party, because it is the bourgeois majority of the parliament that often elects a member of the Social-Democratic party who is not an official candidate of the party. In the Cantons you can find more or less the same system, the difference being that the members of governments are elected by the population. Each party presents only the number of candidates that corresponds more or less to its power in the parliament (we call that ``voluntary'' proportional elections.
With all these explanations I want to illustrate how Swiss politics is always based on the idea of cooperation. I think that in Switzerland there is a very deep mistrust of majorities, of strong political personalities, of charismatic leadership. In Switzerland we think of the country as a puzzle, as a conglomerate of parts and only in a secondary sense as a coherent unit. The political system of Switzerland is a sort of institutionalized compromise that makes the population believe that everybody is represented. Of course often it seems that this system is not more than a very clever invention of the bourgeois majority to protect its own position: the opposition is paralyzed by its integration into the realm of governmental responsibility. On the other hand we can't deny that left ideas often enter into the official policy of the government.
You can imagine that the political culture of the concordant democracy is not prepared to answer a question like: shall Switzerland become a member of the European Union? The answer has to be yes or no: you can't make exceptions for the Romansh speakers or the farmers or the tourist regions.
Here is a look at the vote regarding Swiss membership in the European Economic Area (EEA) in 1992. This involves an agreement between the European Community and the states that make up the European Free Trade Area (EFTA). It is a perfect example of the function and dysfunction of the Swiss political system. The concrete debate about membership has been very short. In 1988 the Federal Council declared that membership in the European Community was not the aim of Swiss foreign policy. The government then changed its opinion in the spring of 92, when it sent the request to Brussels to open negotiations about becoming a member of the EEA. That was only five months before the vote regarding the European Agreement. Perhaps this was a mistake, because it allowed the opposition against the EEA to argue that a ``yes'' would also mean a ``yes'' to the full membership in the community; it was difficult to explain that membership in the EEA could be a third way between full membership in the EC and isolation from any larger European structure. Today we have the impression that the debate and the vote were overhasty.
In a single session in the summer of 92 the parliament discussed a multitude of adjustments of Swiss laws and adopted them to fit the European norm. In a break with tradition, these amendments were exempted from the optional referendum. Of the four governmental parties, only the smallest was against the EEA membership.
Here are some details of the results: Every federal vote in Switzerland is analyzed in rotation by one of three Departments of Political Science in Zurich, Bern and Geneva (there are about four or five voting dates a year with between two and five questions). These analyses were inspired by the fact that participation in recent votes has steadily fallen, being often as low as thirty percent, and by the fear that the bills were too complicated to be understood by the voters. Therefore these analyses also try to measure voters' level of knowledge of a bill. The following results are perhaps the most important: 50.3% of the voters voted against, and 49.7% voted in favor of the EEA-membership. On the one hand, this looks like a very narrow margin; but on the other hand, the bill had absolutely no chance of passing because the Swiss voting system demanded in this case and in other cases not only that the bill be accepted by the majority of the voters, but also by the majority of the cantons. Sixteen cantons (all German speaking cantons except Basel, and the Italian speaking canton of Ticino) were against, seven cantons (the French speaking cantons and Basel) were in favor. The voter turn out was extremely high (78.3%). The Swiss population evidently believed that this bill was very important, even more important than the question of speed limits on Swiss highways. A final result to stress is that the investigators had the impression that the knowledge of the issue was rather high.
And now the question: who voted yes, who voted no? The results were very clear: the yes-voters were
- the French speaking voters: 77% (this was a sensation).
- the inhabitants of the larger cities and its agglomerations: 60%.
- voters with a higher education (Gymnasium and University) (78%).
- male voters (52%).
- voters on the left (79% of the far left; 59% of the moderate left).
The no-voters were:
- the German (56%) and Italian speakers (60%).
- the inhabitants of small towns and the countryside.
- farmers and workers.
- voters who define their political position as middle and right.
The investigators also tried to understand what motivated the decisions of the voters. The arguments most yes-voters agreed with were:
- the membership in the agreement is of a vital importance for the Swiss economy.
- we don't have any choice, thus we have to become integrated into Europe.
- for Swiss people it is important to have the possibility to study, to work and to settle down anywhere in Europe.
The arguments most no-voters agreed with:
- the membership represents an unacceptable loss of sovereignty.
- the membership restricts our civil rights.
- a yes for the EEA membership also means a membership in the EC
- the membership means an invasion of foreign workers into Switzerland
- unemployment will increase and wages will fall.
I think that the gap between city and the countryside is easier to understand than the gap between the French and the German/Italian part of Switzerland. For the linguistic gap I see four main reasons.
- 1. We have seen that the economic arguments are important for the yes voters, and the economic crisis is much more strongly felt in the French part of Switzerland than in the German parts. In 1992 the unemployment rate was 2.1% in Zurich, but 4.7% in Geneva.
- 2. The French Swiss are a minority in Switzerland (20%). The idea of becoming a minority in Europe for them is therefore less a problem than for the German Swiss majority.
- 3. The German speaking part of Switzerland has throughout history always tried to distinguish itself from its big German neighbor, especially since 1933. The identification with old Swiss values of independence and neutrality is much more important in the German part of Switzerland than in the French part. Germany is the most powerful member of the European Community, thus the anti-German reflex in German Switzerland worked against the Agreement. Such problems do not exist between the so-called ``Romandie'' and France.
- 4. The pro-Europe position in French Switzerland became a part of a new French-Swiss identity. Long before the vote it was evident that the French part of Switzerland would accept membership in the agreement and also full membership in the EC. The newspapers intensified this attitude and thus the vote also became a manifestation of the wish of French Switzerland to reform the Alemannic-dominated country. The fact that the minister of foreign affairs and the minister of economics, the most involved members of the government, were French Swiss, was also of a certain importance.
I would like to add some personal impressions, themselves complicated due to the fact that I am a German Swiss living in French Switzerland. During the campaign before the vote and the discussions after the vote, I had the impression that the debates were split into several, more or less independent, discourses. In French Switzerland the pro-Europe attitude has become a sort of creed. One of the leading French Swiss newspapers, founded only six years ago, has the title: ``Le noveau quotidien, Journal Suisse et Europeen,'' ``The new daily, Swiss and European newspaper.'' The articles in this newspaper repeatedly emphasize the idea that Europe holds the only key to the future for Switzerland, and tries to show the damage caused by the refusal to follow the greater European path. The editor-in-chief sponsored a kind of festival for the celebration of the 700th birthday of Switzerland in 1991. This spectacle was performed in a big tent that traveled from one place to the other. These kinds of festival performances have been part of Swiss patriotic events for a hundred years. The new play had the same structure as the old sentimental patriotic performances, the only difference being, that the white cross was replaced by golden stars on a blue background, the flag of the European Community. This creed consists of the idea that Switzerland has to become more open because its isolation will inevitably lead to economic crisis. The opening would reduce the Alemannic spirit in Switzerland that, from a French Swiss point of view, represents a kind of officious bureaucratism as well as a certain moral hypocrisy. Most of the French Swiss don't have much tolerance for all the laws that ensure a better environment or traffic safety. The German Swiss seem to be too serious, too focused on details. They seem to take the problems of their country too personally, an idea that is also expressed by Friedrich Durrenmatt's allegory of Switzerland as a prison, where everybody is prisoner and guard simultaneously. From a German Swiss point of view, on the other hand, the French Swiss ideas of personal freedom and liberalism are perhaps too simple. The French Swiss seem to be more critical of authority in general, and therefore they don't examine the details of what the administration is doing. Thus the difference between the French and the German part of Switzerland is not only a difference of positions, but also a difference of style.
I have to add some remarks about the most recent chapter in the debate. That is the vote about the so-called Alpine Initiative that took place the 20th of February, 1994. When I read an article about this vote in the New York Times I was very surprised; I could hardly believe that this initiative had passed. When you know that only ten percent of initiatives in Swiss history have been accepted, you understand my surprise. The initiative in question is rather severe and inflexible, and seems to go completely against economic common sense. It demands, via a new article in the constitution, that by the year 2004 all goods transported through Switzerland, from one border to the other, have to be transported by railway. This means that trucks have to be loaded on railroad cars. Two new Alpine tunnels, whose construction was decided upon two years ago, will permit this. The government fought against the initiative, and the minister of economics could not hide his anger and compared the outcome of the vote to a ``ban in the manner of the Ayatollah.'' In any other country such an event would create a governmental crisis. But in Switzerland one is used to the idea that the people represent the opposition, which, in the parliament, doesn't really exist. The outcome of the vote complicates the negotiations with the European Union; that is also the reason why French Switzerland voted against the initiative. But the initiative was inspired by the fear that the common European market will flood Switzerland with an ever-increasing number of trucks transporting goods from Italy to Germany and back. The decision is perhaps a sign that the spirit of independence may still be a part of Swiss identity. In any case, many Swiss now observe, with some pleasure, the trouble the decision is causing in the European headquarters in Brussels, because the passes through the Alps are indeed extremely important for the European economy. And not everyone in Europe is criticizing the Swiss decision.
But let's come back to the more fundamental debate about Swiss identity and Europe. There are a lot of occasions when this question pops up, and you get a completely different impression of the issue depending on whether you are examining a patriotic speech during an August First celebration or a modern novel written by a Swiss author. When we have a look at this second type of expression of Swiss identity, we must remember that it represents only one small piece of all the immensely varied expressions of Swiss identity. But I think that such literary works are a rather important field of discussion. You have to know that German Swiss literature always has been a political and engaged literature. Max Frisch is the most famous example: since the 50s he has been continually present in political debates. His novels were praised in the feature pages of the newspapers, while his critical thoughts were attacked in the political parts of the same newspapers. Frisch, who died in 1991, wrote his last play before the vote regarding the abolition of the Swiss army in 1989. In spite of their very critical attitude towards Switzerland, Frisch, as well as Friedrich Durrenmatt, became a sort of national authority. One reason is that their international fame impresses people in a country that is so dependent economically on the outside world. That may explain why their statements, in addition to the statements of other Swiss writers, have been able to penetrate into public discussion and to influence and perhaps even change Swiss discourse about Switzerland. We can note that the authors contributed to two ways of expressing Swiss identity. There are the explicit statements about Switzerland, and there are the very detailed descriptions of Swiss life, life in the villages, in the smaller and the larger towns—two approaches that reflect the two discourses about Europe I mentioned before, a more abstract one and a more practical one. When we have a look at the more general discourse, we can often observe a rather negative attitude on the part of the writers and intellectuals in German Switzerland. Perhaps this critical attitude of German Swiss literature was the result of the wish of Frisch, Durrenmatt and their younger fellow writers to stress that the mere fact that Switzerland was spared during the two world wars does not make it a happy island. (The fact that this literature was read not only in Switzerland and that it became even a very important part of German literature proves that this mental reunification with Europe has worked to some degree).
In 1991 Swiss writers again confirmed their critical position when most of them boycotted the celebration of the 700th birthday of Switzerland, where there were considerable funds provided to support cultural projects. The reason was comprehensible anger regarding a political scandal: the discovery of the fact that during the Cold War, the political police had amassed a huge amount of data on individuals considered to pose a threat to national security. One could hear the slogan, 700 years are enough.
In such slogans, the discussion about Switzerland and Swiss identity becomes rude and polemical (and perhaps that was necessary at this time). But even before 1991, there was an impression that German Swiss literature was inspired by a sort of negative patriotism. Hugo Loetscher found the very fitting expression ``negative yodeling,'' which means the same serious identification with Switzerland but in the opposite moral sense. It seems that this, above all, is the problem of all general statements regarding an entire country. Are these provocative, short statements about Switzerland not false by definition? Perhaps this is the specific view of a literary scholar who normally works with very individual expression. I am sure we learn more about a hidden but real identity of Switzerland when we read the books about daily life, where identity is not an explicit theme. For me it would be more convincing to explore Swiss identity in the details, in daily attitudes and behaviors, in the way daily political decisions are made—all the little signs telling you that something has changed when you have crossed the border from Germany or France. But perhaps the country also needs the more critical statements emanating from a wider, more global vision. In 1991 the most frequently expressed criticism was that in Switzerland there is a lack of vision, of a new positive image of Switzerland. But did these images exist in the past? When we look back to former images depicting Swiss identity, the idea of independence and solidarity, for example, represented by the old heroes, Tell or Winkelried, we realize that these images always arose years, even centuries, after the decisive political events they were based on, and that their only function was to hide new problems. Was it not a positive quality of Switzerland to be slightly more skeptical of ideologies, as one knows the danger that ideologies can pose in a multicultural society? Therefore I cannot really be sad about the fact that the 700th birthday was not a happy birthday, and that the celebrations were more dissonant than harmonious. The excitement of Switzerland's birthday was dissolved by the excitement of the previously mentioned European vote one year later. It was interesting to observe the transformation in the arguments. The German Swiss writers were again present in the discussion.
Now they had opposing views and a large debate took place. Some of the very same authors, who before had attacked Switzerland, now actively expressed their opposition toward the European Agreement. They stressed the democratic traditions in Switzerland which would be threatened by the Agreement. Nobody can deny that indeed there is a certain incompatibility between the Swiss democratic political culture and membership in the European Union. I think this is the key question, and it will be hard to find a solution. It is unusual in recent history to give up democratic rights, even when some of these rights are more or less hypothetical. Suddenly you can hear the demand for a stronger government, even for a more powerful position by the president of the Confederation—demands that hardly have a tradition in Switzerland. This strong government, of course, should also take measures against the economic crisis, above all, by deregulation—the new magic word. Perhaps a minor political event is already an outcome of this new philosophy: the last election in the canton of Geneva. Previously the government of this canton had been constituted by five members of the right parties and two members of the Social Democratic party. For the first time the right parties nominated seven candidates on their list, and these seven candidates were elected. This signals the end of the system of voluntary proportional elections. This attitude of a majority, one that would be considered normal in other democracies, was a sensation in Switzerland. Perhaps the following is true: Switzerland is becoming a more normal democracy and thus elections become more interesting because a minority suddenly can become a majority.
Often people criticize the Swiss reluctance to deal with conflicts. On the other hand, people had many reasons to fear conflicts in this very heterogeneous country. Therefore it is also thinkable that these innovations may become a serious threat for the Swiss Confederation because they destroy a national balance. We will see if Swiss political culture is able to digest more confrontation.
Dominik Müller is Maitre d'Assistant at the University of Geneva, Switzerland. This paper is adapted from a talk given at the University of Michigan, April 21, 1994.