Switzerland facing European Community Membership

The discussion in Switzerland about joining or not joining the European Community can be characterised by two particularly significant features. The first is that almost the entire discussion of advantages and drawbacks of joining or not joining turns on economic issues. The second is that only very few people in the public eye argue against Switzerland’s joining.

This is strange, to say at the least. The issue is not a narrow economic but a fundamental one: should the Swiss people sacrifice its sovereignty and political traditions in exchange for economic betterment or – worse still – for avoiding economic damage? Even stranger: why are so few personalities in the public eye standing up against joining given Switzerland’s history which has been one of fiercely, if not always successfully defending its independence against all comers? In the following, the subject will be approached from four different angles, namely from that of Switzerland as seen from the outside, from Switzerland as the result of a long political, economic and military history, from the viewpoint of the challenge that the European Community poses to Switzerland and, finally, from a country thrown into an identity crisis.

The casual observer not very well acquainted with Switzerland can characterize the country and its citizens with a few buzz words. At the most superficial level, words such as banks, money, cleanliness, mountains, tourism, skiing, chocolate, watches and cows will do. At a somewhat less elementary level, the following would be added

  • A small country that is small in many ways: geographically, in its thinking; the only big things are banks and mountains
  • No significance as a political or military power; no entanglement in foreign wars since the sixteenth century
  • A neutral country that is harmless to its neighbours

In short, Switzerland is a nice place with a somewhat puzzling people, of little consequence though considerable wealth. Non-Swiss can be excused for not knowing more about Switzerland. After all, the country holds roughly 2 per cent of the population of the European Community: it is clearly a quantite negligeable.

The less than casual observer, however, will find that the country has some interesting features in terms of its history. These are features that make it different from any of the great nations that are now gradually merging into the European Community. Switzerland developed as the result of an act of secession or revolt. It was the peasants of Central Switzerland who revolted in the late 13th century against the mastery of the Austrian monarchy and its regional lords. While their wish to pay no or less taxes may have played a role in that secession it is clear from all documents that there were two overriding reasons. Firstly, it was the refusal of a remote and centralized authority; secondly it was the desire to shape their own destmy without – above all – foreign lords.

If this revolt was successful and led to the establishment of the core of what is still today called Switzerland, it had not only to do with the principle of independence from foreign masters and with the desire for individual freedom but also with the fact that at the time Switzerland was an extremely poor part of Europe and had little to lose by revolting. In the wake of several successful battles for independence and later acquisitions of additional territories what was then called Switzerland became a military power of significance in Central Europe. Hubris set in: Swiss peasant soldiers – as conquerors and as mercenaries – devasted, pillaged and raped their way through large parts of Europe during two centuries. It was only in the 16th century that significant military defeats led to the disappearance of Switzerland from the European theatre. One must realise that at the time Switzerland still was – and remained so until the early 19th century – one of the poorest countries in Europe. And one must also see that starting in the 17th century the country really was not able to keep foreign armies from encroaching upon its territory. The most recent example being the incursion of the Russian Suvorov army during the battles against Napoleon, incursions which were a consequence of the fact that the French had occupied Switzerland in 1798.

The humiliation and insignificance that characterized the situation of Switzerland after the 16th century are the roots of Switzerland’s later fortunes. Switzerland no more represented any kind of threat to other nations nor had the Swiss any desire to impress others. On the contrary, they had learnt to leave others alone and strove mightily in the early 19th century to have their neutrality sanctioned by the Vienna Congress. Also, the Swiss had no sense whatsoever of a mission nor any false pride which would have prevented them from imitating other countries‘ bright ideas (as long as they were commercial or industrial ones).

Hence, as nobody’s enemy and everybody’s friend, the Swiss overcame poverty through imitation and the appropriation of patents and ideas as well as through sheer hard work; preserved their material heritage through neutrality; fiercely defended their independence; and maintained political institutions which upheld

the principle of subsidiarity; practiced democracy primarily at the local level, a democracy tempered by a strong sense of individual liberty.

Now, why would the European Community be such a challenge to Switzerland that it ultimately provokes an identity crisis in that country? This is so because the European Community sees itself as the ultimate challenge to the superpowers. However, in the new world situation, the European Community can only be meant to be a challenge to the United States. If that is so, this is plain stupid and, above all, irresponsible. The Europeans – of all nations – should have learnt from their own history, from their own philosophers, and from their Christian religion that striving for power in order to subdue others is immoral.

The second reason why the European Community concept challenges Switzerland is because it is based on the conviction that a bigger state is a better state. There is no empirical evidence that this is remotely true; on the contrary, there is a lot of circumstantial evidence and experience that smaller states with a liberal constitution and frame of mind provide a more humane environment for their citizens than the huge superstates with superpower aspirations. Switzerland is the antithesis to the emerging European Community. It is small, highly decentralized; purely defensive; not interested in any other nation’s territories or goods; and has a constitution that severely limits the powers of central government. The European Community, on the other hand, resembles a crouching colossus whose intentions are unfathomable; it spawns a huge bureaucracy with all the attendant lobbying organisations, spewing forth directives and absorbing every comer for the sake of aggrandizement.

Why should the Swiss give up what they have developed, defended and cherished during centuries and what has given them independence, humane dimensions and wealth? To become a tiny part of huge nation with a highly centralized mode of government, more than a modicum of socialist redistribution of wealth, and aspirations to being a world power combined with the willingness to make its citizens pay the price for it – one way or the other? Why should Switzerland give up so many of its institutions and its way of living just because some people believe that larger is better than small? That uniformity is better than diversity? Why?

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