When the UK voted to leave the European Union on June 23 2016, many people could not understand how David Cameron could have allowed such an important decision to be made by, of all people, the voters.
Some saw the decision to call a referendum as an unnecessary move — especially on the pro-EU establishment side of the debate.
There is one country in Europe though where Britain’s decision to hold a referendum on its membership of the European Union was not only seen as understandable, but probably, in the fullness of time, as unavoidable.
I’m referring to the country of direct democracy and referendums : Switzerland.
A landlocked group of 26 proud cantons surrounded by the EU where citizens defiantly maintain a strong influence on their political class by holding regular referendums on a whole host of political issues. So deeply engrained in the national psyche is the idea of voters having a say that even relatively unimportant political decisions on issues such as VAT or TV licence fees are taken by plebiscite.
While the democratic tradition is also famously well established in Britain, the idea of holding national or regional plebiscites is less so. However, Britain has moved closer to Switzerland in recent years and embraced a more direct form of democracy when it comes to important constitutional questions. Referendums on North East England devolution (2004), Welsh devolution (2011), the UK parliamentary voting system (2011) and Scottish independence (2014) were all held just a few years before Britain’s referendum on EU membership.
It may be unavailing to speculate now, but had the British people been given an earlier say on their membership of the EU – for example when the Maastricht, Constitutional or Lisbon treaties were passed by UK MPs without referendums – we might not have found ourselves in the difficult position we do today.
The Swiss political analyst Dieter Freiburghaus said something that will have resonated with many British voters when he was interviewed by the BBC before the Brexit referendum:
“Switzerland was only interested in the economic aspect of European integration, and that we got: we got access to the internal market. So our economy had a lot of gains. We have the cake and we eat it… at the moment.”
Today’s European Union is politically integrated well beyond the Common Market that the British electorate signed up to after the 1975 European Communities (EC) referendum. In fact, it has since then integrated politically well beyond what most would have agreed to, had their opinions ever been sought. Britain was always primarily interested in the commercial benefits of EU membership, rather than the political. In that sense, Swiss expectations from their relationship with the EU are very similar to British voters.
So, as Britain pushes on this week with negotiating a particularly British model of cooperation with the EU – having categorically stated that it won’t seek membership of either the Single Market or the Customs Union – the Swiss model has once again risen to the fore and warrants some renewed attention.
To really understand the Swiss model, it is worth turning the clocks back to 1992. It was precisely as the British Conservative Party was tearing itself apart over the controversial implementation of the Maastricht Treaty that Switzerland held its most important EU referendum. On 6th December 1992, the Swiss narrowly rejected European Economic Area (EEA) membership in the last of 15 (15!) referendums it held that year.
By rejecting the EEA model, Switzerland was now destined to develop its relationship with the EU in an ad hoc, incremental manner. Greater cooperation may have been desired by both sides, but it was clear that the Swiss were more attached to their sovereignty than had been expected. The incremental model was also very appealing to officials who had found a new respect for the Swiss electorate after the shock 1992 referendum.
That referendum was as divisive for Switzerland as the 2016 referendum has been for Britain. The pro-EEA campaign managed to lose what was at one point more than a 50 per cent lead in the polls –the country finally voting 50.3 per cent to 49.7 per cent against the proposal.
The vote split the country along “national” lines, just as the Brexit referendum would, 14 years later. French-speaking cantons backed deeper EU integration while the German and Italian-speaking parts of the country rejected it.
The vote also revealed another divide within the country that mirrored the Brexit result and also heralded the later manifestation of the anti-elite sentiment so prevalent in our politics today. By rejecting stronger ties with the EU, Swiss voters, particularly in more rural communities, ignored the recommendations of political, intellectual, industrial, business, banking and labour leaders.
It is this key rejection of deeper integration with the EU that laid the foundations for the “living agreement” that Switzerland currently enjoys with the EU – a series of treaties developed incrementally in response to specific circumstances rather than being an off-the-shelf framework for cooperation like the EEA agreement.