Surrounded by the Alps and the Swiss city’s iconic lake, Zurich received acclamation for the highest quality of life in the world in 2012. Switzerland as a whole is not only peculiarly prosperous (the unemployment rate for example is lower than 4%), but also has a long history of multi-culturalism and the greatest number of official languages in the Europe – German, French, Italian and Romansh. Additionally, the federal direct democratic system allows its citizen a large degree of participation in Swiss politics. Yet the recent referendum on restricting ‘mass immigration’ clouded that idyllic, tolerant cosmopolitanism. Initiated by the populist Swiss People’s Party (SVP), the referendum enjoyed a relatively high turnout with 56% of all eligible voters participating. 50.3% voted in favour of curbing immigration, despite this decision violating bilateral contracts with the European Union and endangering their economic outlook. Why?

Image courtesy of Erni Sascha, © 2011, some rights reserved

Image courtesy of Erni Sascha, © 2011, some rights reserved

In order to obtain a credible answer to this seemingly insensible decision, one needs to dig deeper into the Swiss souls and look beyond purely anti-immigration sentiments. It is true that Switzerland has an extraordinary large proportion of foreign residents with foreign roots; roughly 35% of Swiss citizens have an immigrant background, about 23% do not have a Swiss passport and the net immigration into Switzerland was 80.000 last year – a considerable figure for a country with only eight million inhabitants. In that light, a certain hesitance towards further immigration seems plausible. Yet in the majority of cases, immigration is not a poverty or unemployment phenomena. The largest groups of foreign permanent residents are the Italians and Germans, hardly the most prominent cases of ‘poverty tourism’. 30% of the population of Zurich, remember the city with the highest quality of life, do not hold a Swiss passport. Most of them are highly qualified, working in one of the numerous financial institutions or multinational companies. Interestingly, it weren’t the urban centres of the country, but rather the distant rural parts, barely affected by immigration, that voted in favour of the curb. The case of the village Horrenbach-Buchen illustrates that tendency; 94% of the locals voted in favour of curbing immigration. Guess how many immigrants reside in the town of 260 inhabitants? Three.

The decision becomes even more surprising if one considers the consequences for the relationship with the European Union and the national economy. Switzerland, although not a member of the EU, is, however, a member of the passport-free Schengen Zone. Additionally, the bilateral agreements with the EU comprise amongst others the four freedoms of movement: people, capital, goods and services. The Swiss government has three years to renegotiate the contracts – a clash of interests with Brussels seems foreordained, which in turn comes at a high economic price. It is feared that the Swiss economy, which is tightly integrated with the European single market and dependent on influx of skilled foreigners, will take a blow from restricted immigration and those companies with a large proportion of foreign staff are likely to shift investment abroad. Credit Suisse, a bank with headquarters in Zurich, estimates that GDP growth will reduce by 0.3% and 80.000 jobs, due to be created, will fall through the net as a consequence of the referendum.

That voting pattern hints at a different kind of protest; not one motivated by the lack of job prospects, which is prominent in countries like Greece that sees rising extremism, but one driven by resentments, often fuelled by right-leaning populism, against the unknown, against globalization and multiculturalism. This in turn makes it a value-laden protest against the pillars of the European Union. This is a phenomenon which is also observable across Europe, if to a lesser extent, where Eurosceptic populist parties increasingly count on middle class support; the German ‘Alternative für Deutschland’ for example, a party founded by renowned economists and voted for mostly by upper-middle class men, is likely to enter the European Parliament in May. Those sentiments go against the heart of the EU and thus their supporters are barely convincible of the advantages of an integrated Europe. Unlike American diplomat Victoria Nuland, the Swiss population, representing that particularistic movement, prefers a subtler means of communication. The message is the same: F**k the EU.

This confronts the EU with profound challenges. In the short term, the European Parliament elections in May should be in the centre of policy considerations, as the momentum of the Eurosceptic parties increases. The value-laden voters seem inconvincible in the limited time until May; yet those disenchanted who would vote against the Europhile parties due to economic reasoning can still be persuaded. Determined action in the form of economic concessions, including a third bailout package for Greece and debt writing off, is a necessity. In the long term it questions the democratisation process of the EU institutions. This year, European voters can effectively vote for the president of the European Commission, as the strongest party’s top candidate is the aspirant for the post. Yet the Swiss case once more solidifies the European leaders’ fear of referenda and participatory politics. Remember in 2005, the EU Constitution, aimed to make the EU more democratic and transparent, was ironically not-ratified by democratic referenda in France and the Netherlands. Therefore, should the EU continue the process of the democratisation at the expense of the elitist bureaucracy, given the rising Euroscepticism fuelled by right-wing populism? The May elections and their aftermath in the short term, and the British in-out referendum in 2017 in the long term, will give us an idea.