Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Swiss Vote to Restrict Immigration: Direct Democracy in Action

On February 9, 2014, the Swiss voted in a non-binding referendum by a narrow margin (50.3%) in favor of immigration quotas and an end to “mass immigration.”[1] This result took the government by surprise; officials had been urging the people to vote no. So too had the Swiss bankers—only coincidentally of course. Just enough voters rebuffed the establishment of power and wealth for the referendum to pass. Johann Schneider-Ammane, the Swiss Economy Minister, suggested that a “culture of excess” in the pursuit of profit sometimes at the expense of the common good had discredited the political and business elite in the eyes of ordinary people.[2]

Johann Schneider-Ammane, the Swiss Economy Minister. Rarely does a prominent member of the political/business elite publicly criticize it while stressing how it differs from the people. 
(Image Source: Ruben Sprich of Reuters)

Put more abstractly, direct democracy broke from the grips of a firmly-established plutocracy (rule by wealth), even if only for a day.  This caveat is important, for the referendum’s non-binding feature means that the government is not bound to craft the majority vote into law. Put another way, the game-rules were tilted or rigged in favor of the financial sector and the government, and thus of representative over direct democracy, and, moreover, of plutocracy over democracy itself. If the check on popular passions afforded by representative democracy (e.g., terms of office) does not trump the value-added from the direct will of the people in direct democracy, the non-binding rule is sub-optimal.

As yet another drawback, E.U. government officials did not miss a beat in exploiting the non-binding feature by publicly pressuring the legislators of the independent state to resist writing the referendum’s result into law. Besides what this high-level squeeze says about the tilt toward representative democracy and even plutocracy at the expense of the people’s will having direct effect, I submit that the distinction between the nature and scale of an empire and those of polities on par with the empire’s constituent political units (i.e., states) is disregarded as well.

Martin Schultz, the president of E.U.’s parliament at the time of the referendum, immediately accused the Swiss citizens who voted yes of having succumbed to “the lowest instincts” rather than being led “by rational arguments.”[3] If the statement sounds like rhetoric designed to influence a vote already taken, the underlying intent may have been to exploit the referendum’s non-binding feature by pressuring the government of the independent state to act contrary to the will of the majority.[4] That is to say, Schultz and other E.U. government officials sought to exploit the distinction between direct and representative democracy.

The question of fairness in government officials of an empire-scale union of states pressuring legislators in an independent state largely flew under the world’s radar screen. As various E.U. officials hinted that the maintaining the free movement of workers is a requirement in the European free-trade agreement (EEA), no one bothered to recall that an empire-scale “territory of territories” consists of many cultures, whereas within a state (or even an independent state-scaled republic like Switzerland) cultural or ethnic diversity does not necessarily exist, at least not anywhere near that of an empire-scale federal union. In fact, the E.U. citizens and residents moving from one state to another are actually “quasi-immigrants”—a hybrid status that reflects the dual-sovereignty that exists in modern federalism (e.g., the E.U. and U.S.). Therefore, inter-state movement of people within the E.U. is more necessary than the free movement of immigrants in the independent state of Switzerland (whose cantons are roughly equivalent in scale to counties in some E.U. and U.S. states). 

Is it fair that a policy stemming from the nature of an empire-scale “compound” polity be pushed on an independent state? At the scale of polities that are states (in empire-scale Unions-of-states) or regions (in China), or republics (in Russia), homogeneity (e.g., a shared culture) has been the default, and indeed arguably of value in terms of solidarity (which an empire typically has trouble achieving, given the inherent interstate diversity).

To be sure, the Dutch and German states had been empires in medieval times; that Switzerland was as well can be seen in the linguistic and cultural diversity still remaining there. Yet by early modern standards, those federations were on the scale of the early-modern nations (hence then on the state-scale, rather than that of empire). The strengthening of centralized monarchs and the related military advances effectively extended the quarters of homogeneity, and thus pushed out the scale of empire (as consisting of those nations).

In conclusion, in threatening the Swiss government with exclusion from the free-trade area because a slight majority of the Swiss voting yes felt that the diversity already extant in their state-scale polity was compromising unity possible at that scale (but not at that of an empire), the E.U. officials were conflating the nature of an empire with that of the political units therein. In other words, to apply the level of inter-state “immigration” needed in the E.U. to state-scale Switzerland involves a rather fundamental political category mistake. What is necessary and fitting for one level of governance is not necessarily so at another level.  

[2] Edward Taylor, “Swiss Immigration Vote Shows Loss of Trust in Business Elite: Minister,” Reuters, February 12, 2014.
[4] Actually, the majority of 50.3% is only barely a majority. Considering that only half of the eligible voters voted, the “majority” is actually a minority of the electorate, not to mention the general population.