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Switzerland: Citizens Voting About EU Matters More Than in EU

On 15 May, Swiss voters were asked to vote on the adoption of the EU Regulation on the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) and repealing Regulations (Development of the Schengen Acquis). Switzerland has been part of the Schengen area since late 2008, as the Swiss approved the Schengen and Dublin Acquis with 54.6% in favour a couple of years before in a referendum. The country is not a member of the EU.

The EU has undertaken vast reforms in order to give Frontex greater means in terms of logistics and human resources, as well as better preserve and control human rights during pushbacks. This is a sensitive subject for the Agency and one which notably led to the recent resignation of its director, the Frenchman Fabrice Leggeri. The Swiss Federal Council (Government) and Parliament have approved the EU Regulation on the development of Frontex, multiplying Switzerland’s financial contribution by roughly 2.5, from approximately 24 million Swiss Francs (22.9 million euros) in 2021 to 61 million Swiss Francs (58.2 million euros) in 2027.

Opponents of Frontex’s policies considered Switzerland, through its financial support, co-responsible for alleged human rights violations committed by Frontex and therefore launched a successful referendum against the Government decision and Swiss Parliament’s vote. The Swiss people were therefore called upon to confirm֫—or reject—by referendum the vote of Parliament on the resumption of the EU Regulation concerning the development of Frontex.

It was interesting to note that the national-conservative right Swiss People’s Party (UDC/SVP ~RE), traditionally opposed in particular to the Schengen Agreement, has called for a yes vote, supporting Switzerland’s participation in the Schengen Area. On the other hand, the left called for voting no on principles relating to Human Rights, arguing that a no vote would not get Switzerland out of the Schengen Area, whereas the opposite argument was used by the left itself also on the vote on the takeover of the EU Weapons Regulation in 2019.

Yesterday’s result (71,48% yes, for increasing participating in Frontex financing, staff and material contributions) show the highest percentage in favour of EU policies in Switzerland since the beginning of the 21st century. After the official result was published, The Centre (EPP) welcomed the result while recalling that the issue of human rights and pushbacks must be taken seriously. The Green Liberals (RE)called on the Government to take ‘this result as a clear mission to unblock the relationship between Switzerland and the EU’. The left—The Greens (G/EFA) and the Social Democratic Party (S&D)—called for working towards a Europe of human rights and demanded that ‘systematic and illegal’ pushbacks at the EU’s external borders end. The Liberals of FDP (RE) reiterated they were in favour of a ‘constructive cooperation with the EU and of a coherent European policy of Switzerland’.

Nonetheless, as this vote on the adoption of the EU Regulation on the Frontex Agency confirms Switzerland’s attachment to the Schengen Area and Freedom of Movement by a large majority, it should be remembered that Switzerland has the particularity of being the only country in Europe to have its citizens voting more times on the European Union than the actual member states, without being an EU member state.

To understand how yesterday’s vote marks another milestone in Swiss direct democracy linked to the EU it is worthwhile looking closer at thirteen older votes related to Swiss-EU relations:

While the 2014 vote, narrowly won by the national-conservative UDC/SVP, made headlines in Europe, a more in-depth detail of all the votes since the refusal to join the European Economic Area (EEA) in 1992 shows that out of fourteen referendums in total, eleven were in favour either of a rapprochement with the EU, or of a stronger integration of EU public policies.

If the vote on the Accession of Switzerland to the EEA in 1992 created, at the time, a schism between French-speaking and German-speaking people in Switzerland with only the six mainly French-speaking cantons (regions) and the two cantons of Basel-City and Basel-Country voting in favour of the EEA, the Swiss Government quickly opted for an ‘à la carte’ European integration. It was therefore during discussions with the EU that the 1997 vote on the Popular Initiative ‘EU accession negotiations: let the people decide!’, supported by the Swiss Democrats (~ID) and the Lega dei Ticinesi (~ID) was flatly rejected at 74.1%.

The first round of Bilateral Agreements was widely accepted in 2000 which caused the failure of the Popular Initiative ‘Yes to Europe!’ in 2001. This initiative called for immediate negotiations with the European Union with a view to Switzerland’s accession. At the time, the centre-left Christian Social Party (~EPP), the Christian Democratic People’s Party (EPP, future DM/AM-EPP after its merge with PBD/BDP-* in 2021), the Liberal Party (before its merge with FDP-RE), the Social Democratic Party (S&D), the Labour Party (EL) and The Greens (G/EFA) were in favour, while all other parties opposed this Initiative and won, with 76.8% of voters rejecting the idea of immediate accession talks with the EU.

In 2005, Switzerland’s entry into the Schengen Area was accepted by 54.6% and a long list of votes followed, all in favour of the EU.

Also in 2005, the extension, to the ten new members that joined the EU in 2004 – Cyprus, Czechia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia – of the Free Movement Agreement between Switzerland and the EU was put to a referendum. Accepted by 56%, this vote has the particularity of being the only popular vote in Europe focussed on the 2004 EU Enlargement, members and non-members both taken into account – and nevertheless by a country which is not a member of the EU.

In 2006, one billion Swiss Francs (95 million euros) were approved to enable cooperation with Eastern EU States at 53.4% ​​and in 2009, the extension, to the two new members that joined the EU in 2007 – Bulgaria and Romania – of the Free Movement between Switzerland and the EU was again approved by nearly 60%. Again, this vote had the particularity of being the only popular vote in Europe focussed on the 2007 EU Enlargement, by citizens of a non-EU country.

The six other votes, between 2009 and today, have focussed three times on the adoption by Switzerland of EU Regulations and three times on Popular Initiatives aimed directly or indirectly at suppressing the Freedom of Movement between Switzerland and the EU

In 2009, the Regulation on biometric passports was approved with 50.1% yes and in 2019, the EU Regulation on weapons was approved with 63.7% yes. This last vote was particularly intense as it was seen as challenging the very old Swiss tradition of Gun culture: with nearly three firearms per ten inhabitants, Switzerland ranked 16th among the countries with the most weapons in the world, according to the Geneva research centre Small Arms Survey in 2018. This legislation was notable as the EU threatened to remove Switzerland from the Schengen Area if it did not pass the recommended restrictions.

Amongst three other Popular Initiatives that aimed to oppose or repeal the Freedom of Movement, EU medias focussed solely on the February 2014 Popular Initiative ‘Against mass immigration’, a vote supported by national-conservative Swiss People’s Party UDC/SVP that was approved nationally by 50.3 % but rejected again by Western French-Speaking Switzerland with notable exceptions of the cantons of Basel-City and Zurich, also against the initiative.

This vote led to turmoil in Swiss-EU relations: Switzerland was expelled as reprisals from Erasmus (Higher Education), Horizon (Research), MEDIA (Cinema) while Turkey for example, an official member to EU Accession to become a full member of the EU, is still a full member of all these programmes. Interestingly, the adoption of the Film Act (Amendment) on yesterday’s vote (58,42% yes) that is also aiming of having at least 30% of European Productions in SVOD operators’ catalogues in Switzerland would also help Switzerland to re-join the EU MEDIA programme in a near future. It was, in fact, a transposition of an EU directives into the Swiss national law.

One vote in 2016, the Popular Initiative ‘For the effective removal of criminal aliens’ that aimed to oppose EU Freedom of Movement was rejected by 58,9%. Another Popular Initiative, in 2020, ‘For moderate immigration’ that aimed at straight repealing the EU Freedom of Movement, was rejected by 61.7%.

The unilateral decision, a year ago in May 2021, by the Swiss Government to terminate the negotiations of the EU-Swiss Institutional Framework Agreement (a sort of midway position between actual policies of Bilateral Agreements and an EEA membership) is now the trickiest problem to solve. Baby steps have shown progress in the field of Swiss-EU common shared values, especially when Switzerland joined EU Sanctions against Russia last February. It is still important to state that an escape door to this Swiss-EU relations’ imbroglio is still open as a gfs.bern poll showed, last November 2021 that 56% of the Swiss supported EEA Accession while 71% remained opposed to any Swiss-EU Accession.

Sunday’s vote on the EU Regulation on Frontex Agency shows that nevertheless and against the odds, Switzerland, while not being a member of the EU, still understands that its relations with the EU are deeply imbricated and important as being surrounded by the EU. Switzerland is one of the main trading partners of the European Union: it is the EU’s fourth largest export and import market for goods after the United States, China and the United Kingdom (approximately seven to eight per cent of EU exports) and the small Swiss Confederation is the EU’s second-most-important trading partner, with an export share of eleven per cent (2019) and over ~350,000 cross-border EU commuters working in the Alpine country daily.

The fact that the Swiss voted in favour of the EU again – the eleventh time since 1992 – is enough to point out that Switzerland is the country that has its people voting the most often and the most in favour on EU related matters and issues while being non-EU citizens. This being said, it also calls into question the very definition of direct democracy inherent amongst EU institutions.