There was a plebiscite in Switzerland this past weekend, that by 50.3% demanded restrictions on immigration from other European countries into the "neutral" mountain country. Supported by political right-wing politicians as a step to limit the potential dilution of Swiss "identity", the move is a canary in the coal mine for the rest of Europe, given the increasing power and influence of right wing political parties in other countries. However, for the Swiss, the vote could spell restrictions on the sale of their national exports like watches and cheeses throughout the EU. While she is not formally a member of the European Union, she did sign a treaty to accept one of the EU's preferred values, open borders for people and goods.
However, with the rapid rise of globalization, there seems to be a concomitant rise in fear of the loss of unique identities, even though reports indicate that workers from other European countries are welcomed by the corporations operating in Switzerland.
It is the smell of an "anti-others" attitude that is especially troubling. Whether the motive to keep out others has economic overtones, as it does in Germany for example where outsiders seek "tourist benefits" of a substantial social safety net from that country without paying the freight of resident taxes to support the program, or merely a kind of "keep them out" isolation that we have seen in the past, it smells of a new kind of racism, in spite of the protests from supporters that it is not intended to have that odor.
We are potentially witnessing a very disturbing trend in this vote, especially if it truly is a "pioneer" move that will be mimicked in Germany, United Kingdom, Hungary and other countries. Some reports suggest that not only will the Swiss relationship to the EU have to be renegotiated, but that such votes might become a threat to the EU's core value of open borders. It is the yin and yang of the future of the EU, this tension between open borders and closed borders, and the meme could become one of the identifying traits of the next few years or decades.
Increasingly, we see signs of pulling back from sharing at all levels. The dominant sign of this withdrawal paradigm, against which US Secretary of State John Kerry has had to speak publicly, is the US withdrawal from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and ....other potential hot spots, causing questions about US commitment to its allies, as if the only and most significant level of intervention for the US is, as it has been too often, military. Signalling a shift to diplomacy and away from military action coming from US leaders, while welcomed in many quarters, is nevertheless troubling to some who see the US history of playing the heavy hand as a necessary component to keeping world conflicts from spinning out of control.
However, for Switzerland to adopt a cap to its immigration levels from other EU countries could signal a kind of fear of scarcity of resources, lifestyle and ethnic identity that makes most observers wonder about a not-so-subtle drama of racism. And in the long run, this vote in Switzerland is merely a very small isolated step in a very small country when one considers where there is an abundance of scarcity and a teeming population attempting to eke out an existence in that scarcity in other parts of the world. Are we, it will be asked increasingly in more and more places, our brother's keeper, in the sense that we are prepared to provide access to what has become a "way of life" based on abundance and "full employment" and so many amenities and the sharing of those amenities with all who live within our borders, including those who have come from afar? Or, are we increasingly fearful that our abundance and our amenities and our full employment and our national identity will give way to an influx of outsiders whose ties to our "place", in essence our neighbourhood, and reduce or even eliminate our historic access to the abundance we have come to savour and feel the need to protect?
From a global perspective, the Swiss example could well be a warning sign for other countries, in which fear-mongering politicians whip up the not-so-latent fears of a public that has grown accustomed to too much isolation (in diplomatic-speak, known as "neutrality") for it own and its neighbours' health.
Lessons in inter-dependence, especially in a world whose natural resources are being stretched to provide for all, will continue to demand a space in the public square, and will determine the kind of relationships that set foundational trends for the next century. Some are suggesting that this recent vote has implications for a new international trade agreement between the EU and the US, and such agreements will continue to challenge our concept of national identity, as we give more power to foreign corporations who do not like the actions of governments in such treaties and potentially the power to take legal action against those foreign governments. The interface of the corporations and the national governments, in all countries, could become unrecognizeable if such agreements are eventually signed. Turning our countries over to the vagaries and the demands of international corporations, in agreements through which national sovereignty has been compromised, for the benefits of those behemoths, while seeming inevitable, is nevertheless still worth the strongest resistance and if the Swiss candle in the dark can be seen as such a light, then the world could come to thank the people of that country for their "individuality" in a world fawning at the corporate idols.
As one country that has often taken courageous steps that demonstrate its capacity for independence, Switzerland continues to draw the world's attention, if the motives behind this latest vote are less than platinum, in the short run. Perhaps in the long run, the results of the vote will see a shift in the way the world does both its geopolitical business and its relations with those corporate monsters.