Running like Clockwork: The Swiss Model for Europe

Article published on Oct. 6, 2003
community published
Article published on Oct. 6, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Why Europe’s visionaries should take their eyes off America and start looking inward – to Switzerland.

Whether it is true, as Marx wrote, that ‘the dead weight of the past hangs like a nightmare over the brains of the living’, it is certain that in projecting the course of future European Union, the American dream has caused some sleepless nights. An influential book published before the convention began, Siedentop’s ‘Democracy in Europe’, evoked Tocqueville’s ‘Democracy in America’, and the constitutional Convention was compared to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. Even Giscard’s preferred, but for now, abandoned title for the Union, the ‘United States of Europe’, seems to imitate our larger Atlantic offspring.

But the European Union is, of course, not the United States and cannot be expected to evolve likewise. The US was a newly discovered continent, a vast swathe of land waiting to be developed: Europe on the other hand is an old realm with deeply entrenched nationalities, historically formed peoples with their own collective memories and traditions. The US is a monolingual bloc, participating in a common English culture: Europe is a patchwork of interweaving language groups where no single one predominates. The US was a nation of immigrants, of voyagers in search of a new life prepared to embrace a new culture and identity: Europe’s peoples remain deeply rooted in their lands and ways of life. By basing our vision of European unity upon the American precedent, we can only foster scepticism towards the European project. For we quickly then recognise that the two are not the same, and are left without any credible vision for Europe at all.

The Swiss Precedent

‘The new members have made it more difficult than ever to govern Europe as if it were France. It will be necessary very soon to learn to govern Europe as if it were Switzerland… The more it moves to a looser union, the more like Switzerland it will become’ (Jonathan Steinberg, 1996)

On the other hand, with its 4 languages and overlapping confederacy of 26 political units, each with their own history, political system, constitution and sense of identity, Switzerland seems to prefigure the European project by some 150 years. From 1798 to 1815 the Swiss cantons underwent a process of ‘enlargement’, in which the mainly German members faced the challenge of integrating new French, Italian, and Romansch areas. In 1848 Switzerland established a written constitution and introduced a single currency, the Swiss franc, to replace the various cantonal currencies that had circulated before then.

The Swiss precedent is mainly useful because it gives us a legitimate expection of what kind of union is possible between sovereign polities that are entrenched in their own histories, languages and identities. For ultra-federalists, who hoped that Brussels with its centralising administration would turn Europe into a ‘greater France’, it provides a needed dose of reality. A broader union will also have to be, like Switzerland, a loose one. For eurosceptics, who continually nag that Europe is doomed to failure because is not like the United States, it offers a welcome rebuke, in providing a positive example of what a multi-lingual confederacy of sovereign political units is still capable of achieving.

Like the emerging European polity, the bulk of political and economic responsibility rests at the level of the sovereign Cantons, leaving the central government in Bern with a more regulatory role. To this day, the Swiss government’s powers of direct taxation are remarkably limited; the Swiss Finance Minister has little power to force Cantons into changing their tax policies. Likewise, the existence of the Euro will make necessary some form of ‘tax harmonisation’ in Europe, but that will be, as in Switzerland, conducted through a painful process of negotiation between the states. The Swiss government, too, functions remarkably like the European Commission - a managing board whose President is more of a ‘coordinator’ than a ‘leader’, and whose Commissioners enjoy remarkable independence from the rest of the political system. And, just like in the European Commission, every group must be represented – exactly the right proportion of Italians, French, or Germans, and an exact representation of the party spectrum.

Measured against the US constitution, Europe’s is disappointing. The constitution of the United States was a product of the Enlightenment, enshrining principles of liberty and democratic governance that were radical for their time. It is a sacred text, repeated in classrooms, memorised by its countrymen, and altered only with extreme care, controversy, and deliberation. On the other hand, as Habermas has pointed out, in declaring ‘Democracy in Europe’, the European Constitution merely reiterates what already exists at the national level. It contains few sweeping passages about man, his rights, or his freedoms, and it certainly does not declare ‘one nation, united under God’. But if we are fixated on the US precedent, we lose sight of what the convention was supposed to achieve. Its virtue is that it clarifies new mechanisms for coordinating the policies of the member states, their goals and their aspirations. Measured against the Swiss constitution, it would appear perfectly adequate - not as a radical declaration of principles, but rather as an attempt to coordinate pre-existing democratic structures. That is why the criticisms, of the kind voiced by the Economist, are unfounded. Like the Swiss constitution, it is a wholly uninspiring document, but then it was not meant to be an article of faith. And just as the Swiss, in contrast to the Americans, have revised their constitution hundreds of times since its inception, the European constitution will have to be just as flexible. Indeed, in 1874, only 26 years after the Swiss constitution was written, it had to be totally revised in order to take account of all the changes made in the interim. It is quite plausible that in 26 years time Europe will find itself in a similar position.

The other pillar of the new Union is the Common Foreign and Security Policy. It goes without saying that the European Union cannot be expected to produce anything so formidable as the US Federal Army, but it is interesting to note why. The main constraint will not be financial - when collected together the existing defence budgets of EU states are similar to that of the US. Nor will it be organisational, related to the practical difficulties of running an army with upwards of 20 languages - the Austro-Habsburg, and today the Swiss, armies demonstrate the falsity of this assumption. The main obstacle, rather, is political: in an area so sensitive as military engagement, where politicians face responsibility for the young of their nation returning home in body-bags, it would be almost impossible for a confederation divided by strong national instincts to act without near unanimous agreement to do so. The alternative, therefore, is that taken by Switzerland - institutionalised inaction. Switzerland had to pursue a policy of neutrality because any engagement in European wars would have generated intolerable divisions within the Confederation: containing members from the ethnic groups of each of its neighbours, the only policy that could be unanimously agreed upon was rigorous border protection. The European Defence Force, also, will be restrained to non-controversial tasks such as humanitarian assistance, peace-keeping, and border control. In short, it will be to the world what the Swiss Red Cross was to the battlefields of twentieth century Europe: someone who cleans the wounds rendered by others, but is duty bound not to inflict them.

There is however a major difference between Europe and Switzerland: the latter was built upon direct democracy, its constitutions were accepted by referendum. It is at this point that we must turn Switzerland from historical precedent to future aspiration, and that one day, in many years to come, Europe will have a demos to complement the polis.