The new map of Europe

Sep 29, 2013, 03:34 IST | Dominic Lawson

With an EU referendum likely, how would a separate Britain fit in (or out) with the rest of the continent?

When David Cameron pledged to offer the people of Britain an “in-or-out” referendum on our membership of the European Union(EU), he summed up the outcome he didn’t want as follows: “If your vision of Britain is that we should just withdraw and become a sort of greater Switzerland, I think that would be a complete denial of our national interests.” Yet the Eurosceptics see Switzerland as exactly the model to follow. Outside the EU it has thrived, with the lowest unemployment rate on the continent -- and in July it signed a trailblazing free-trade deal with China.

British Prime Minister David Cameron recently promised to hold a referendum by 2017 giving British people the choice of staying in or leaving the European Union if his party wins the next election. Pic/AFP

Unlike Norway (often cited as the other alternative model for Britain), Switzerland is not even a member of the European Economic Area, the so-called halfway house (in the European single market but outside the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy). If you enter this country from overseas you will notice that the sign “For Europeans” at passport control states: “British, EU and European Economic Area citizens.” Then in the line underneath it has the single word: “Switzerland”.

Splendid isolation, or not so splendid, depending on your point of view. This was not supposed to happen. Twenty-one years ago Switzerland held a referendum over entry into the EEA, as a step towards full membership of the EU. To general astonishment the Swiss people voted “no,” albeit by the tiniest of margins (50.3 per cent to 49.7 per cent).

It is a moment Dominik Furgler remembers better than most of his countrymen. Now Switzerland’s ambassador in London, this lean, athletic-looking man had in 1993 taken up a position as head of information in the country’s EU integration office and suddenly found that his new job had been made almost redundant by the electorate.

As he recalled in Switzerland’s functional embassy in a not especially smart area near London’s Baker Street: “The integration office was under two ministers, one for the economy, one for foreign affairs, and they were both shocked. The economic minister, Jean-Pascal Delamuraz, was bitter, very bitter… he felt something terrible had happened, that this would really damage the country.” If there was one man responsible for this seismic shock to the political establishment, it was Christoph Blocher. Now 72, Blocher -- a small man with a powerful handshake -- is leader of the nationalist wing of the Swiss People’s Party.

He has a talent for blunt public speaking; though his critics have described him as a xenophobic demagogue: in the country’s 2007 general election he ran a poster campaign showing three white Swiss sheep kicking a bad black foreign sheep out of the country. One of 11 children of a pastor, Blocher is also a self-made billionaire, having built up a single factory into a multinational chemicals business. He is a Swiss amalgam of the wealth of the late Referendum party founder, Jimmy Goldsmith, and the oratorical skills of Nigel Farage.

Back in 1992, Blocher had personally bankrolled the “no to the EEA” campaign and beams when he recalls that episode. “It was not the best investment for me personally, but the best for Switzerland. The old political class, the government, the parliament, the business organisations, the unions, they were all for entry.” And why was that?

“They were afraid that we were always too small as a nation and that it would be better to be part of something bigger. And perhaps the politicians thought they would have more power. Also such people are fascinated by something big, constructing a Europe from the North Pole to Sicily, from the Urals to Great Britain. The politicians are fascinated by this idea, but the people are not so fascinated.

“Here we have direct democracy, through the cantons, and the Swiss people want to keep that. They do not want to be under the control of foreign judges or a foreign political establishment. You must remember the origins of the Swiss state, 722 years ago -- farmers in the mountains and so on saying, ‘We want our own liberty.’ We never had a king; we governed ourselves as people. We were the first country in Europe to have one man, one vote, guaranteed by constitution.”

Switzerland’s cantonal system -- buttressed by a unique and active system of referendums that can be triggered by petitions containing 50,000 signatures (about one per cent of the electorate) -- is most unlike the much more centralised Westminster model. Yet what the nation has in common with Britain is an ancient, stable and continuous national democracy; this is quite different from countries such as Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece, whose relatively short experience of democracy has been blighted by fascism and warfare, and for whom the EuropeanUnion and peaceful liberty are inextricably linked rather than separate concepts.

Blocher’s fervent belief in national self-determination means he has consistently declined requests to speak in Britain about the issue of EU membership in the run-up to the referendum Cameron has pledged by 2017 -- assuming the Conservatives are in a position to deliver it.

Britain’s annual net contributions to the EU budget run at over £8bn. While wealthy Switzerland, in return for selective facilitated access to the single market, has paid out a grand total of £860m over the past five years, and retains the right to control how its aid to the poorer EU countries is spent on the ground, rather than allowing it to be channelled through the Brussels bureaucracy.  

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