Thursday 5 August 2010

Why Switzerland?

This little post is a reflection on an article in the current issue of the Swiss weekly – Weltwoche.  The article in question is by Markus Somm and is entitled, Die Idee der Freiheit.  In it Somm tries to make out that the defining characteristic of Switzerland is precisely Freedom.  As he puts it:  „(Switzerland) exists for one reason only: because its inhabitants for centuries have wanted to be free.“

Now Switzerland is a lovely coutry and I always enjoy our regular visits here.  And I realize that the article was written on the occasion of Switzerland’s National Day, but come off it – freedom, even with a capital F, is something peculiar to the Swiss?  Methinks Herr Somm doth protest too much.

In the first place very few people think freedom is a bad idea.  Secondlly many other countries have longed valued freedom and many would also consider freedom a special characteristic of their traditions.  For example England with its Magna Carta and Habeus Corpus.  And in Scotland of course the idea of freedom has at least as long a history as in Switzerland. 

Take for example these stirring words from the Declaration of Arbroath:  „It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honour that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.“  Now this claim dates from 1320, during Scotland’s long wars of independence against England.  Note too that by then Scotland had already existed for at least 400 years.  So like the Swiss, Freedom is something that Scots have fought and died for, over and over again.

It is also pertinent to note that Somm’s notion of Freedom is pretty much restricted to freedom from.  In the case of Switzerland this was from domination by the Hapsburgs and in the case of Scotland from domination by the kings and queens of England.

These days have long passed and the notion of a Hapsburg take over of Switzerland is wholely in the realms of science fiction.  But Markus Somm has not written out of nostalgia.  He is one of the Swiss equivalents of our anti EU brigade.  Thus his little piece is primarily an attempt to justify Switzerland staying out of the EU.  His article ends with a somewhat hyperbolic claim that if Switzerland were to enter the EU, then this would mean the end of Switzwerland as a free country.

However what people like Somm fail to mention is just which Switzerland are we talking about?  For not to put too fine a point on it the Switzerland of today has little in common with the three tiny Alpine cantons that came together to fend off the Hapsburgs in 1291.  The successive expansions of the Swiss state has nearly always involved some degree of restriction on the freedoms of the cantons.  Just about all countries in the world have signed up to a whole raft of international obligations which clearly restrict their freedom of action.  Only the likes of Burma and North Korea remain aloof from this process.  And Switzerland has been at the forefront of many of these international agreements.  Specifically in relation to the EU, Switzerland has for decades now been a party to  successive Bilateral Agreements which in the opinion of many Swiss effectively mean that Switzerland is pretty much part of the EU already.  So it is not at all clear just how full membership would somehow cause Switzerland to cease to be Switzerland.

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