Switzerland practices a kind of direct democracy, which means the people is called several times a year to vote directly over initiatives and to make parliament or executive decisions binding. Matters otherwise decided by the political class, in advanced democratic countries, are subject to the direct judgment of citizens. Last weekend the Swiss rendered a decision regarding the unlimited entry of persons from countries that are members of the European Union – in which Switzerland does not participate, result of another popular vote that was strongly opposed by the elites. Should Switzerland, as a sovereign state, assert the right to control its immigration and to set rules for residency?
Additionally, a larger issue hovered behind the vote. It involved resisting the growing power of “Brussels” to centralize and bureaucratize Europe. Almost all the newspapers and the electronic media, as well as the executive, predicted the end of civilization should the people vote wrongly. That forecast was given support by threats fired off by the EU, which claimed that the screening of entrants involves a violation of bilateral Swiss-EU treaties. The threatened consequence: economic retaliation that amounts extortion by a promised boycott.
The story also reveals a sizable gap between the people and the ruling elites that claim to represent them. The difference expresses a crisis of contemporary democracy. This makes Switzerland into a place where one can hear the people’s voice about matters elsewhere are judged too complicated and delicate to be determined outside of governing clans.