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CODEVILLA: Lessons From Switzerland’s immigration referendum

The governing class is unnerved when people vote their national interest

- - Tuesday, February 11, 2014

On Sunday, the people of Switzerland approved a referendum that imposes restrictions on the number of foreigners allowed to live and work in their country despite an all-out opposition campaign on the part of the country's political, social and economic establishment, as well as by every government of the European Union.

The Euro-American ruling class is up in arms at the result because the Swiss people decided to do things that the majority of people throughout Europe and America might like to do, but which the rulers in these pretend democracies prevent the people from doing.

There is no appealing a referendum in Switzerland because the people are "the sovereign" practically as well as theoretically. Now the Euro-American ruling class fears that the Swiss example might spread.

Because the people's exercise of their sovereign power is the main lesson to be taken from Sunday's events, let us look at what we might learn from Switzerland's ballot.

The Swiss do not engage in isolationism or xenophobia. The country is made up of three major linguistic groups, and 27 percent of its population is made up of foreigners. It lives by foreign trade.

Nor do the Swiss question the need for, and desirability of, foreign workers or residents. However, unlike their self-appointed betters, they want to consider what limits may be consistent with maintaining their very identity.

To this end, the referendum merely authorized annual quotas for work permits and mandated preferential hiring for Swiss citizens. Substantively, no big deal.

The political class showed by its reaction that, like the Swiss voters themselves, it understands that the issue really is about who rules: Who is really the sovereign in modern European (and, one may add, American) society? Who is "sovereign," the people or the political parties, the government bureaucracy, and those whose fortunes depend on them?

Zurich's daily Neue Zurcher Zeitung thus summed up the fact that the issue goes well beyond immigration: "The Yes to the 'Massive Immigration Initiative' is a censure that is comparable to No to the European Economic Area."

In short, as the Swiss people have done on previous occasions, they rejected the unanimous advice, entreaties, warnings and threats of the ruling class of their country, their continent and, indeed, the entire Euro-American establishment.

Just as in 1992 the Swiss people had rejected binding themselves to the common rules of the European Economic Area (which morphed into the EU), in 2014 they asserted their right to limit who comes into their country.

Unlike pretend democratic countries, Switzerland did this openly, upfront and, above all, by the expressed will of the people. In contrast, consider France, whose foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, used Switzerland's vote as an excuse for accusing the country of wanting to "withdraw unto itself."

This is the same France that by decree and contrary to treaty commitments, monitors its border with Italy to exclude migrants from Africa.

What the ruling class of Europe (and of America) fear is not that any country — much less a tiny one like Switzerland — might isolate itself. What they fear is that the people will express themselves.

Switzerland — so different in its obviously democratic constitution — is no different from other Western countries in that its traditional political parties have become largely indistinguishable from one another.

Indeed, whether in Bern, Paris, London, Rome or Washington, D.C., the traditional parties have formed a barely differentiated amalgam with the governing bureaucracies, big business and finance, the educational establishment and the media.

This oligopoly is an interest group unto itself. It legislates, executes and judges in its own interest. Except in Switzerland, the people cannot change the conditions of public life by voting for the opposition party.

Even in Switzerland, where real opposition has swelled the ranks of the People's Party — the only one that is really different — the referendum is the only real means of popular resistance to the ruling class.

The results of referendums in tiny Switzerland deeply upset the Euro-American governing classes because they see in them the danger that haunts them. Yes, they have obviated the standard routes of opposition by amalgamating themselves into a mostly undifferentiated ruling party.

Yes, they hurl invectives of "extremism" at all political forces outside their orbit. Yes, they manipulate elections. Yes, they avoid or negate referendums. By eliminating differences among themselves, they have left the role of opposition free for the taking.

Throughout Europe, without exception, parties of the right are rising. Important as questions about their quality are, they are overshadowed in practice by the inescapable fact that they are, de facto, the alternative to ruling classes that are grossly, increasingly, irremediably unpopular.

Most unpopular is the European Union itself, and for the best of reasons; namely, that it underlines the nasty fact that modern government — the administrative state — is the negation of government of the people, by the people, for the people.

That is why the referendum in Switzerland, which America's Founders called "our sister republic," are so interesting.

Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University and author of the forthcoming "To Make Peace Among Ourselves And With All Nations" (Hoover Institution Press).