Swiss Politics for Complete Beginners by Pierre Cormon

A month or so ago, the Swiss people voted to stop the Free Movement of People into their country. This book came to press just before that momentous decision was made, but it explains the background and I can see that the mess I’ve perceived to be Swiss politics is actually an orderly mess, as one might expect of a country where the trains run on time.

It’s not only an orderly mess, it’s a fascinating one too. Cormon sets out the complications of the political system here in a straightforward, comprehensible way. The direct democracy, the federalism, the cantons, the cultural similarities, and cultural and linguistic differences to name some of the issues. Switzerland has 4 official languages and English is more important than at least two of them. Both French Swiss and German Swiss in my experience use English as their second language. I’m given to understand that even within the one language, German, the differences in local dialect can make English a good choice for common ground.

Cormon speaks highly of the political attitudes which have dominated Switzerland historically – cooperation, concession and compromise, listening to all points of view. He adds to this the idea of politicians not being important. The Swiss don’t trust the idea of professional politicians. Latterly, however, courtesy of one man, Christoph Blocher, that has changed, with the UDC – Swiss People’s Party – adopting a confrontational stance entirely out of keeping with politics in this country.

Cormon paints a picture of a country which is see-sawing on the brink of change, he regrets what he sees as the end of the way in which the Swiss democratic model worked so well for so long. It’s an attractive aspect of the book, the author cares about his country and shares his concerns with the reader. He does this in a diffident modest way, as a Swiss person would. And yet, I can understand the unease underlying the vote against the Free Movement of People. There is a sense amongst those who feel they have ‘lost’ that there is something unfair about it, the margin being tiny, but that’s democracy. One way or another tiny margins decide things. The same people would not exactly be wracked with guilt, I dare say, if the initiative had been rejected by an equally small margin.

It is too early to say what is going to happen regarding the Free Movement of People. The EU has come down like a ton of bricks and if I were the average Swiss person (not an easy concept, as you can see, an average Swiss person) I would have my back up about this. Economic prosperity may suffer, but perhaps there is more to life and the Swiss can see this. Street crime in Switzerland is largely foreign, approximately half of those on welfare are foreign. Economic prosperity comes with a cost.

Later this year comes another initiative to limit immigration to Switzerland, motivated this time by environmental imperatives. Coming from a country, Australia, which should be calling a halt on immigration until it meaningfully tackles the massive environmental issues that immigration only adds to, I applaud the idea that Switzerland is thinking of this now, instead of when it is too late. Economic prosperity comes at a cost. Not for the first time one sees the interests of the greens and the conservatives meld into one. It will be interesting to see what happens.

Swiss Politics for Beginners is the best 19.30CHF I’ve spent since I got to Geneva several years ago now. I bought my copy at Off The Shelf and they will even ship it to you for next to nothing if you can’t get there.

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