“When there is a feeling of separation between those governing and those governed, it’s wrong”
The Ambassador of Switzerland to Ukraine and Moldova spoke to The Ukrainian Week about the perceptions of the EU and NATO in his country, neutrality as a tool of influence in international politics, conditions preventing the exploitation of direct democracy by populists, and the visible impact of Swiss investment and technical assistance in Ukraine.
How does Switzerland see the EU and itself with regard to the EU? Has that perception changed over the decades of the EU’s existence?
There is no direct answer as Switzerland is a very diverse country. Many different opinions of the EU coexist and vary between segments of the population – those very much in favor and those completely opposed to the EU. But there are also many who are more moderate and want to maintain a good relationship with the EU without being part of it. Over the years, there has been a general acknowledgement of both the EU’s contribution to peace, stability, economic growth and values, as well as of its shortcomings like its centralization, its lack of direct democracy which is very important for the Swiss population, the EU’s bureaucracy and some economic flaws. As a result, the Swiss population is not ready to adhere to the EU, as it has made clear in the past by voting narrowly against joining the European Economic Area. Nowadays, talks of adhesion are no longer on the political agenda as the politicians have taken note of the population’s opposition to Switzerland becoming an EU member state. At the same time, we probably have the most intense bilateral relations than at any point before. We have a network of strong bilateral agreements; we have had many votes on EUrelated matters. That’s also an important element: the Swiss people were asked on the issues of European identity, values, principles and regulations at referenda, - many difficult issues - and remarkably, they voted yes, until 2014
(when Swit- zerland narrowly voted in favor of immigration quotas - Ed.). We are not in the EU, but we are strongly European thanks to our shared values. It is sometimes difficult to understand for outsiders.
Meanwhile, that European identity is often questioned in EU member-states by some aspiring forces. And they push for the fragmentation of the EU. How could these changes affect Switzerland?
The EU is politically, economically and financially absolutely central for Switzerland, so we need good relations with the EU.
I’d like to give you a few numbers: 55% of the Swiss exports go to the EU and 73% of Swiss imports come from there. We are the fourth most important trade partner of the EU. Moreover, 1.3mn people out of almost 8mn inhabitants of Switzerland come from the EU, meaning that the links are not only economically important, but from the perspective of human relations.
What many Swiss have problem with is the lack of direct democracy and decentralization in the EU. In Switzerland, we vote on anywhere between two to seven topics every three months. This means that every political process, from the very early stage, begins with broad consultations and an understanding that some sort of a compromise will be needed, as the population will have the final say.
You don’t see that too often in other countries. There, you have a majority swinging directions every four or five years, and no consultations in between. As a result, when there is a vote the population is less responding to the question, but rather making a political statement against or in favor of the government. In Switzerland, people are a bit more integrated into everyday political life of the country.
Meanwhile, direct democracy is increasingly being used as a tool by populists for their ends – and sometimes quite successfully. In your opinion, what does it take to make nations vote responsibly and make informed choices?
I don’t think we’re better than any other country in that. We’ve just been lucky enough to develop our system for a long time. Switzerland opted for direct democracy. But this system is refined by a politi-