The Swiss get off the bus

December 22, 1992

The movement to a monolithic European economy of 370 million people from Iceland to Greece took a setback when the voters of Switzerland, in the center, said no. By itself, this stops nothing. But it is symptomatic of growing resistance in many countries to the supranationalism of the leaders of government and business. Nationalism -- as cultural identity, security blanket, tradition and protest against gigantism -- is back.

The Swiss vote went against the advice of almost all the Swiss leadership in government and business. If Switzerland is seen as a corporation rather than a country, the referendum was a rebuke of management by stockholders. They don't want to get out of the Switzerland business, even though their leaders say that when the rest of Europe is unified, that business is dead. Politically, Swiss neutralism relates to Switzerland's larger neighbors. If they are for practical purposes one country, Switzerland has nothing to be neutral about.

The idea of Europe is taking setbacks. A Danish referendum held up the Treaty of Maastricht for monetary union, which requires unanimity. The EC decision to open borders has been suspended. Suddenly Europeans are alarmed at the non-European underclass of the adjoining European countries, and the refugees seeking entry. The existing currency system shattered on the German central bank's high interest policy in the German political interest. The Yugoslavian catastrophe is a reminder of the nightmares in Europe's past.

This was the context in which the Swiss voted on participation in linking the loose European Free Trade Association (EFTA) to the powerful European Community (EC) in a European Economic Area (EAE). That is, half-way membership by countries including Sweden, Finland and Austria, that seek to join. They will go ahead without Switzerland.

It was a very narrow vote in the aggregate, but passage required a majority of cantons as well as people, and this was decisively negative. The majority German-speaking Swiss were mostly against, as were Italian speakers, while the French-speaking population favored the arrangement. Unable to join multinational Europe, multi-cultural Switzerland is itself under great internal stress.

The European bus is leaving the station. The Swiss got off, against the advice of their betters. They saw the tide of history and swam against it. This is not the last that will be heard of the matter. But Europe (the idea) needs a win.

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