Democratic Fundamentalism in Switzerland

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Imagine you are asked to vote on a treaty concluded between your home and your neighboring country. The treaty aims at improving cooperation in border control matters between the two states. Would you vote in favor of or against adopting the treaty? Or would you not go to the polls at all?

How much democratic control of foreign policy? Photo: courtesy of Kanton Glarus
How much direct democracy in foreign policy-making? Photo: courtesy of Kanton Glarus

The Action for an Independent and Neutral Switzerland (AUNS) launched a popular initiative, which, if adopted by Swiss voters, will amend the Constitution so as to require a popular vote on all but the most trivial international treaties. What sounds like empowerment from a committed democrat’s point of view sounds like handcuffs from a foreign policymaker’s perspective.

Yet, the motivation behind AUNS’ initiative is not so much democratic as politically strategic. The group’s main goal is to prevent Switzerland from joining the EU, overtly, or as they fear, covertly. AUNS members, which unsuccessfully vowed against Switzerland joining the UN in 2002, lament that the Swiss political elite is too open-minded toward the world. The strategy they employ is an old one: If you think the majority of the people is behind your cause, you ask them, if not, you ignore them.

The crafting of Swiss foreign policy, however, is neither elitist nor undemocratic. Parliament has a say on most international treaties and it can decide in each single case whether to ask the people or not. The new initiative would make this option compulsory.

AUNS thinks their appeal is popular, particularly at a time when Switzerland is struggling on multiple foreign policy fronts, the banking secrecy and the diplomatic dispute with Libya, to name the two most important. They think that more popular control of foreign policy would restore Switzerland’s strength, independence and neutrality on the world stage.

I come to the opposite conclusion. The problem with Switzerland’s foreign policy is a lack of strategic foresight and coordinated planning. Too many actors fiddle around with foreign policy. To some extend, this is justified by Switzerland’s Constitution, consensual democratic culture and the need for checks and balances. Yet, asking the people on every single international treaty would paralyze foreign policy endeavors and reduce democracy to absurdity.

This week, the ISN examines challenges to democracy in the 21st century. The challenge posed by democratic fundamentalism is one of those.

One reply on “Democratic Fundamentalism in Switzerland”

Switzerland is not anything else than a renewed conservative, primitive, backward rich village from the 13th century. Modern rubbish from the old world……

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