October 8, 2009
Instead of Washington or Beijing, the president of the Swiss Federal Assembly (parliament) has chosen Brussels for her 2009 official trip, accompanied by a representative of each of the main Swiss parties. Their visit is one more sign of the fundamental importance Swiss authorities attach to the EU.
The Swiss are keenly aware that theirs is a quintessentially European country; even if it charts an independent political course, its future and its economic well-being is irrevocably enmeshed with the EU.
Indeed, the intensity of interconnections between the two economies is staggering. All in all, Switzerland is the EU’s second economic partner (trade+investments+services), and her third most important export market. 40% of Swiss foreign direct investment goes to the EU, and 70% of FDI in Switzerland comes from the EU. Swiss companies employ 900, 000 people in the EU, whilst more than one million EU citizens live in Switzerland (not to mention 200, 000 who commute daily to work there while living in neighbouring EU countries).
There is between the two sides a dense web of agreements in a variety of fields: free circulation of people, trade in goods, transport, education, scientific research and the environment. Quite significantly, Switzerland is a full participant in the Schengen agreement, and the euro is almost universally accepted in the country.
In these important respects, Switzerland de facto behaves more like an EU country than some actual EU member states. Tellingly, the Swiss people have agreed by referendum, not once but twice, to adapt their rules to the accession of new EU member states. Are we certain a similar result would have been obtained had accessions been submitted to referenda in EU member states?
The Swiss polity is an unsung example of democracy in action. The way cantons, which have a very wide degree of autonomy, participate in the definition and conduct not just of domestic but also of foreign policy, could serve as a template for future pragmatic evolutions within the EU.
The manner in which citizens, through frequent recourse to referenda at the municipal, cantonal and federal level, influence decision-making is way more democratic than the often sclerotic political lives in many EU countries, where people often feel impotent to actually influence the course of things. Indeed, any reflection about the ‘democratic deficit’ in the EU, a plague not just at EU level but also very much at the national level, could usefully consider the Swiss practice as an example to be emulated.
Some think that Switzerland ‘must’ eventually join the EU; it may, but there is no imperative reason why it should. Yet, despite not being a member, the behaviour of Switzerland is fully what one can expect form a most friendly and constructive partner. Switzerland is a plus for Europe.
Miguel Mesquita da CunhaAuthor : Letters to the EurActiv editor