Monday, June 6, 2005

A week in which the French and Dutch “No” votes to the European Unionconstitution rocked the whole project of European unification and left its future uncertain ended with a bizarre twist. On Sunday, in famously neutral, non-EU, non-European Economic Area Switzerland, the people voted by a 53-precent referendum majority to accept the Schengen and Dublin agreements. It was a move which, in the assessment of the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, now renders Switzerland a “virtual member” of the European Union.

It was not a referendum which the pro-integrationist Swiss government had wanted to risk. For nearly 15 years the Bundesrat had nursed the “strategic goal” of joining the EU, in the face of continuing popular opposition. The government’s attempt to slide into the EU via the EEA was rebuffed by the people in a referendum in 1992, and in 2001 an initiative by Swiss Euro-enthusiasts to mandate negotiations for EU membership was massively rejected at the polls. The government might have hoped that attrition would wear down popular resistance — as it did in the case of joining the United Nations — to the point where the electorate would yield the required answer, but it would have preferred not to put it to the test.

The 600-page official “green paper” on Schengen was published just 10 days before the opening of the Swiss parliament’s December session, and whipped through both houses in three days. It was indecent haste, many felt: material of such import, a senator from Zurich observed, would normally be subjected two years of scrutiny. Instead, the Christmas holidays then served further to reduce the time allowed for opponents to raise the 50,000 signatures required under Swiss constitutional law to demand a referendum.

The basis on which the Swiss government advanced its case for Schengen was nothing if not bold. Whereas Britain and Ireland rejected Schengen because of security fears if they dismantled border controls (and even the EU members who opened their borders under the Schengen terms just accepted this as the price they must pay for the notional benefits of the free European internal market), the Swiss government asserted that a prime benefit of Schengen was the added security it would bring their country. Just as it claimed the Dublin agreement would reduce the problem of asylum seekers, the Schengen Information System (SIS) was heralded as the future means of combatting international crime and security threats.

A glance elsewhere in Europe would, one might have thought, have left the Swiss less sanguine. The provisions of the Dublin agreement have in fact left Switzerland’s German neighbors to handle a significant net increase in asylum cases, and the vaunted SIS has proven of small worth. In 2003, the most recent year for which figures are available, the SIS yielded just 156 arrests in Germany. In Switzerland, that would translate to the equivalent of a mere dozen arrests a year; whereas the present Swiss border controls that Schengen will now compel her to dismantle generate more than 35,000 arrests a year and serve to refuse admission to a further 90,000 questionable characters annually. Despite the claimed advantages of the SIS for Switzerland’s neighbors, moreover, the Swiss today enjoy a crime rate half that in France and Germany, achieved with a proportionately lower level of policing.

Given the record, it is astonishing that the Swiss should have accepted their government’s argument for Schengen. But with unremitting propaganda for the concept of progressive participation in Europe, the Bundesrat secured a virtual monopoly of media backing. Having won the referendum, however, it may be fairly predicted that the pro-Schengen argument will shortly be turned on its head, in pursuit of the further “strategic goal” of EU membership: If Switzerland has already paid the administrative price, the electorate will be told, they might as well have the fabled economic benefits of the common market.

Underfunded and under-represented, the “No” campaign — which mustered 1,226,449 votes in the referendum against 1,474,704 for Schengen — is under no illusions about where the referendum result will lead, politically or socially. A sharp increase in violent crime is predicted as a first result, with further long-term negative consequences following the implementation of some Schengen provisions that might have been of marginal relevance elsewhere in Europe, but which would hit the Swiss especially hard. The EU Firearms Directive, for instance, might have yielded little good or ill in other EU countries, where the private possession of guns was already severely circumscribed, but it will have a massive impact in Switzerland.

Peace-loving Switzerland has one of the most heavily armed societies in the world, with perhaps 5 million guns among 7 million people; and the free possession of arms has served it well. Its militia army (which even though much reduced in recent years, could still muster more soldiers in 48 hours than Britain) has played a key role in dissuading invasion in both World Wars, and in peacetime the ubiquitous rifle-in-the-cupboard has served as a deterrent that has contributed significantly to Switzerland’s impressively low crime rate. Ever since Machiavelli described the Swiss as armatissimi e liberissimi, “most armed and most free,” the possession of arms has been a political hallmark of liberty and independence in Switzerland, and the tangible expression of the distribution of power in her society.

Looking at the experience of other European countries, Swiss opponents of Schengen have feared that the EU Firearms Directive’s backdoor introduction of weapons registration and conditional possession will be a step toward confiscation and an intrusion upon their birthright. “If weapons are a token of power,” an old Swiss dictum asserts, “then in a democracy they belong in the hands of the people.” But like other traditional aspects of Switzerland’s direct democracy (including the referendum system itself), such familiar guiding principles are no longer certain.

For some years members of the Swiss government have spoken of the need to streamline democracy. Winning the Schengen vote has been a major step to help them on their way.

Richard Munday is the author of “Most Armed & Most Free?” and co-author of “Guns & Violence: The Debate Before Lord Cullen.”

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