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Swiss vote on going it alone in sovereignty referendum

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The Swiss love their referendums, but a proposal going to the vote on Sunday on Swiss sovereignty has upset almost the whole of the political spectrum and could affect Swiss relations with the EU and even the United Nations.

Why the fuss?

The main proposal calls for Swiss law to take precedence over international law and treaties. For supporters like Aliki Panayides, it would give voters “the final say on every issue”.

She says: “That’s all we want: it’s us that says what is going on in Switzerland, not a foreign tribunal.”

United in opposition are the Swiss government, all major political parties bar one, and a coalition of 120 civil society organisations, from environmental groups to groups which support the elderly, the disabled, or refugees.

“It’s a Trojan horse… it’s not about saving democracy, it’s about weakening fundamental rights in Switzerland,” says Andrea Huber.

She believes the proposal could allow voters to unpick dozens of international commitments the Swiss have signed up to, on human rights, the rights of the child, or even on trade.

So will it fail?

There is one political party that supports this proposal, and it is arguably Switzerland’s most powerful political force: the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP).

And the People’s Party has succeeded before in votes on limiting immigration from the EU and on deporting foreign criminals, although their proposals were not enacted into law as rigorously as the party had hoped.

“What parliament did with them was just nothing,” complains party member Aliki Panayides. “They just said ‘Oh we can’t do that, the EU won’t like it’.”

What’s the EU got to do with it?

Switzerland is not a member of the EU, but it has signed up to much EU policy, including free movement of people and the Schengen open border zone in order to gain access to the single market. Both policies were approved in national referendums in 2005.

When in 2014 the Swiss voted to introduce quotas on immigration from the EU – by the narrowest of margins: 50.33% to 49.67% – Brussels immediately signalled that this would be a violation of freedom of movement likely to put trade relations at risk.

Three years of haggling finally brought a solution the People’s Party regards as unacceptably weak: no quotas, but preference given to workers already resident in Switzerland, and only if unemployment reaches particularly high levels.

If Sunday’s proposal goes through, supporters believe parliament and government would not be able to adapt the results of a referendum so liberally.

At the same time, the EU has grown tired of the endless bilateral negotiations with Switzerland: it wants an “institutional framework agreement” in which the Swiss adopt many EU laws automatically. If Sunday’s proposal is passed, that idea could be dead, and Swiss-EU relations could get awkward again.

Why is vote about Europe’s courts?

Supporters also see a yes vote as a first step towards withdrawing Switzerland from the European Convention on Human Rights. That would mean no longer being subject to the European Court of Human Rights, which is entirely separate from the EU.

“Switzerland is a neutral, peaceful country,” argues Aliki Panayides. “We don’t need treaties for that, we will follow the rules anyway.”

Andrea Huber begs to differ. She says thousands of Swiss families were helped by a 2014 ruling from Strasbourg that overturned a Swiss court judgement on asbestos-related illness.

The EU’s Court of Justice is also a factor.

If the Swiss government agrees the “institutional framework agreement”, the ECJ could become influential. Again, the People’s Party argues this would undermine direct democracy.

The historical roots to this vote are deeper than the EU though: neutral Switzerland has always been cautious of joining big international organisations: it did not join the United Nations until 2002, and has been slow to ratify major UN conventions like the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

What’s going to happen?

Latest opinion polls suggest voters may reject the proposal, because of the message on human rights that a yes vote might send to the rest of the world about Switzerland, which after all is home to the Geneva Conventions, and to the United Nations.

But Swiss commitment to their neutrality and independence should never be underestimated, and polls have been wrong in the past. In 2009 Swiss voters defied predictions and backed a ban on the construction of minarets, violating, some argue, Switzerland’s obligations to freedom of religious expression.

Don’t they get fed up with referendums?

One thing the Swiss do not really argue about is their system of direct democracy. Although turnout is sometimes low, people do not complain about how often they are called on to vote.

They even vote on the same issues more than once. Direct democracy here means anyone can put an idea to the people as long as they gather 100,000 signatures.

It took three referendums over three decades before Swiss women got the right the vote in 1971.

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