A sign at the Swiss French border with town of Ferney Voltaire in Le Grand-Saconnex near Geneva, February 10, 2014.
A sign at the Swiss French border with town of Ferney Voltaire in Le Grand-Saconnex near Geneva, February 10, 2014.
Denis Balibouse / Courtesy Reuters

It is not often that small and peaceful Switzerland makes headlines across Europe. But it did earlier this year, when the Swiss voted by a narrow margin (50.3 percent) to amend their constitution so that the federal government could regulate immigration from neighboring European countries. According to the amendment, the Swiss government has three years to draft and enact such regulations. If it follows through, the days of unrestricted labor movement -- a requirement for Switzerland’s continued bilateral relationship with the European Union -- will be over. No wonder, then, that across Europe, national leaders and observers decried Switzerland’s cherry-picking in its treaties with the European Union and condemned its efforts to build new walls across the continent.

In the run-up to the vote, Switzerland’s major economic associations rallied against the amendment, warning of the economic consequences. For one, reintroducing quotas on immigration would undermine the European promise of free movement of people, labor, services, and capital. In fact, the move would nullify one of Switzerland’s foundational agreements with the European Union -- the free movement of people -- and, with it, many other pacts under the Bilateral I treaty -- the treaty that governs air and road traffic, agriculture, trade, public procurement, and science, among other things -- thanks to that agreement’s so-called guillotine clause, which maintains that the cancellation of one bilateral treaty nullifies all the others. If that happens, it will harm Switzerland’s export-oriented economy in the long run. And there are short-term consequences as well. Just after the referendum, the European Union canceled negotiations with Switzerland over the country’s inclusion in the EU research agenda.

So why would the Swiss have voted for such an amendment? Since Switzerland opened its borders with the European Union in 2002, the percentage of Switzerland’s population that is foreign has expanded from 21.2 to 23.3 percent. The lion’s share comes from EU countries in western Europe. Although there has been increase in migration from EU countries in eastern Europe, the total number remains below one percent of the Swiss population. Next to Luxembourg and Liechtenstein, that is the highest proportion in Europe and something that some Swiss blame for overcrowding, increasing rents, and decreasing wages. For many Swiss, it is also a risk to social cohesion and shared values, a factor that outweighs any real contributions to the economy that immigrants might make.

This feeling is not limited to Switzerland, and its new amendment has inspired sympathetic parties elsewhere. In Austria, for example, the right-wing Freedom Party, known as FPÖ, has called for a similar referendum. In Germany, the so-called Alternative for Germany, a new party in favor of the country’s exit from the euro, demanded that Germany likewise restrict immigration from other European countries. Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party, which calls for the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, was quick to jump on the bandwagon as well. The United Kingdom is preparing for a referendum on EU membership, so the Swiss decision has added resonance there. If Switzerland, which is not a member of the European Union, could place conditions on EU immigration, then the United Kingdom, which is not a member of the eurozone, could feel empowered to enact special policies of its own.

Suddenly, Europe is facing the worrying prospect of piecemeal treaties between nations replacing those that have governed the continent for the last decade. Such fears might sound overblown, but the European Union is readying for parliamentary elections in May 2014. Anti-EU parties, especially those on the far right, have pooled together into the Le Pen–Wilders alliance, named for the French right-wing politician Marine Le Pen and the Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders. They are expected to double their numbers in the European parliament, where they will fight the “monster of Brussels bureaucracy,” in the popular phrasing, and return as many powers as possible to individual nations. That will stymie any further development of the European Union and condemn the alliance to stall in its transition period, perhaps forever.

The possibility that Europe would get stuck there has been a risk since the early days of the union. Its very structure allows national politicians to blame the European Union when things go wrong -- or when unpopular policies have to be pursued -- and claim responsibility for the popular ones. Switzerland is a particularly drastic case; the blame game goes entirely unchallenged there because Switzerland is not part of the EU and is traditionally eurosceptic. Since the European media is still organized along national borders, such political tactics go uncorrected and no one hears the European perspective. It is thus not surprising that the European population has a negative attitude toward pretty much everything “that comes from Brussels.”

For a long time, no matter how unpopular the European Union became, there seemed to be no alternative, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been known to say. But the Swiss decision sends the signal to European citizens that there is an alternative after all, some halfway house between total integration and total separation, and that the balance must be decided through public debate. Although there was once a time when a mere reference to the historical project of Europe was sufficient to convince people of its value, those days are gone. The European Union has finally become a political issue, and arguments for and against the project are valid. 

In this new Europe, a continuous integration process cannot be taken for granted, nor can it be presented without alternative. Its survival will depend on national media to start looking beyond borders; Europe does not need a unified public, but it does need a media with a European perspective. It also needs a political class that is willing to openly discuss the advantages and disadvantages of Europe. The unified European market and the free movement of labor are not laws of nature. Proponents of an open Europe need to be more willing to argue their case and engage with the euro-skeptics’ arguments. This is not to say that the Swiss decision wasn’t dangerous: the negotiations ahead will be difficult, and the end of free economic and scientific exchange will hurt Switzerland in the long run. The referendum was also a worrying signal of the rise of xenophobia in Switzerland and beyond.

The Swiss decision is an early warning for Europe. The union will only thrive if the public is able to scrutinize how it works and how policies get made. If that is not possible, and if politicians refuse to debate publicly the future of the European Union, popular discontent with European integration will only grow. There is no better time than now to change the way decisions are made in the European Union. Given the current attitudes of Europeans toward the union, policymakers better not waste this chance.

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  • LUKAS KAELIN is a visiting fellow at the Europe Center of Stanford University and a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Vienna.
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