Deadlocked in the Alps

After having been isolated at the foothills of the Alps for centuries, Switzerland slightly opened its windows to Europe (and hence the world) at the beginning of the 21st century. The outcome of a referendum will likely catapult the country back into the Stone Age.

Few people know much about Switzerland; apart from the chocolate and its infamous banks. Given the size (41’000km2) and the country’s location in a place nobody would voluntarily have settled ever[1], this doesn’t come at a surprise. What not even Swiss citizens know is that unlike in most developed countries getting access to higher education in Switzerland is a privilege and depends on the social class as much as the state (canton) one is born in, mainly due to one of the poorest scholarship programs in Europe. People who like me were forced to do an apprenticeship instead of going to university but who nevertheless have very high intellectual skills were only allowed access to certain universities after Switzerland was forced to open its higher education system as a consequence of the curricula harmonization among European universities and the so called Bologna Process in 2005. However, even if small steps have slowly changed the academic environment in Switzerland, Swiss citizens are still very much limited in their geographical range. For example, they aren’t allowed to participate in programs such as “working holidays” overseas, as members of so many other nations.

Being limited by mountains on one side and limited access to the world on the other, it is only logical that many Swiss seek to move overseas – individuals and businesses alike. For me, the country has always felt too small, be it for the narrow-mindedness of fellow-citizens or the limited visions of the state government in Bern, where I grew up. Having lived in bigger cities such as Geneva and Zurich and extensively traveled abroad, I took the first chance I was given and moved to Spain as soon as we were allowed to do so under bilateral agreements. With Switzerland eventually joining the Schengen agreements, it seemed that isolation was history and I never thought of having to bother with living near the Alps again. That all changed on 9th February 2014 due to the power of a small number of intellectually limited Swiss citizens.

Among the things people don’t know about Switzerland, direct democracy and the story about William Tell are probably the most ridiculous ones, at least in terms of their symbolism for independence. Both are myths and whereas latter is no more but a made-up story, former sounds better than it turns out to be in real life. For many years it has been argued by experts that nowadays policies are so complex, that their consequences are hardly understood even by many politicians. How impossible must it then be for ignorant citizens, many of whom don’t have the slightest idea of politics or our political system, to estimate the outcome of their vote? Whereas in Switzerland one needs to do a three-year apprenticeship in order to call themselves a barber, four years to work as a carpenter or hold a special degree to approve electric installations, anyone can decide about the fate of the country (and hence fellow-citizens) regardless of how ignorant they are (if that is not a contradiction to the high aspirations of direct democracy?).

The consequence is that voters don’t decide depending on content but rather on what people tell them to vote. And as it is, most influence have those with the biggest PR budget, who in Switzerland are the party members of one infamous Christoph Blocher a multimillionaire and isolationist who has dominated Swiss politics for decades. Using the same old ultra-right-wing slogans of fear, xenophobia and risk of unemployment again and again he has systematically manipulated the (limited) pro-Europe-pro-World efforts of a government that tried to protect the Swiss peoples from its own stupidity. Unfortunately, Blocher and his conservative friends have eventually succeeded and with their recent attempt will likely bring back Switzerland to where it started some 800 years ago: a tiny piece of land where conditions are so harsh that only losers would want to live there.

If Swiss citizens fear that European migrants who don’t even speak one of the country’s official languages pose a threat to their jobs they will be surprised that all the well-educated, open-minded and internationally competitive expatriates living overseas might be a bigger one, will they be forced to “move home”. As I am happy to sit in my seat and enjoy the trip when flying, ignorant voters should leave the piloting to the experts, which in their case are those with political understanding. I would never want to fly a plane with 220 people sitting in, nor do I tell cow-farmers how to milk their cows. Likewise, I expect that Swiss voters respect their fellow-citizens wish and right to be world-members, not grumpy creatures waiting for the next avalanche.

On 9 February 2014, Switzerland made a huge mistake. Citizens should now listen to the experts and quickly undo the damage before they become nothing more than part of a pitiable history.

[1] Given the harsh climatic conditions at a time when people didn’t have the comfort of central heating and insulation in their homes, one can only assume that those originally settling at the foothills of the Alps were tribes not strong enough to conquer or defend friendlier places, such as the Mediterranean.


About blaubear

Born in 1973 in a small village in rural Switzerland and into a society largely dominated by cows (not only was the human population of one-hundred-and-forty outnumbered by them, but politics were driven by unreasonable subsidies for diary products) I was connected with nature from early age on. Observing nature on one hand and the deficiencies of a dysfunctional Swiss agricultural policy with farmers that had lost connection to the land that provided their income on the other, I soon started to question society and the meaning of life. Suffering also under a farcical public education I developed curiosity to discover on my own. That was how I soon learned that little of what I had been taught was true. Skepticism and interaction with people from for me new cultures fostered my interest for the world and eagerness to leave a life shaped by federalistic layman-ship. At the age of twenty-three I hit the road for the first time, an event that later translated into passion. Traveling between cultures has since become part of my life. At the age of thirty-three I finally realized my dream and did a degree in Environmental Engineering from which I graduated in 2009, only to leave Switzerland once more for my "real home" Spain. Unfortunately, the stay was a short one: a couple of months later I was offered a job in Southeast Asia, where I worked and also lived (with some interruptions, e.g. I live in Melbourne since late 2012) ever since. Having worked for a Japanese company earlier in my life, I soon felt captured again by Asian culture and thinking which makes a lovely contrast to my European heritage. My journey through different countries and cultures has taught me that regardless of how different our thinking and values are, no matter what approaches we take, we all can learn from each other. And if we are open enough to see the common instead of pointing out the differences, then we have a chance to live in harmony and peace: Life is all about integration, not exclusion! It's an old wisdom that "knowledge is power", as such I never get tired of being around new people, having interesting talks, and reading lots of good books. I hope that my blog can contribute to the conversation.
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2 Responses to Deadlocked in the Alps

  1. Patrick S says:

    Hi Urs – interesting to hear your opinion on this.

    I think I’ve mentioned this before, but Paul Mees at least argued for the benefits of Switzerland’s Direct Democracy in the field of transport planning. He argues that the referenda system provided a popular pushback against transport experts and government elites who in the 1970s wanted to basically scrap Zurich’s trams in favour of a high-engineering design based on both road and rail tunnels. I dare say a good pinch of Swiss direct democracy wouldn’t go astray in the current E-W tunnel debate.

    I agree that DD can certainly sometimes be an outlet for our worse sides – this argument back to Socrates, Aristotle et al thrashing it out about the Greek democracy in Athens. Chris Watkins from Appropedia and I tried to deal with at least some of the issue of popular, local vs expert knowledge in our recent paper that’s just been made available via proceedings today:- via

  2. blaubear says:

    Thanks for your inputs. Some thoughts from my side:
    Zurich and transport planning: I don’t know the details of that story. However, what is clear is that the situation in Zurich is completely different from the EWL in Melbourne. In Zurich, the freeway (Autobahn) connecting South/North with the East has never really been finished. Instead, it is disconnected and all the freeway traffic is basically driving through the city on normal roads. That’s insane and everyone would like to have a better solution. Yet, it seems too late to do anything about it and nobody sees an economic feasible solution. I’m asking myself if a tunnel system in the 1970s wouldn’t have been a better option -> similar to Melbourne, planning should have been 40 years ahead, not 30 years behind the current traffic flow.
    In contrast to the situation in Zurich, the EWL in Melbourne will create more traffic and bring it straight into the city. That’s a completely different situation.

    Direct democracy and a “stable political system” in Switzerland: unfortunately, from many outsiders direct democracy is often praised for having had a positive influence on a rather stable political arena in Switzerland. While this is partly true (given that decisions which can take a few months in other countries may take up to 15years!) I believe that what makes the Swiss system more democratic than others, is its multiparty landscape. All politically “more developed” countries have a multiparty landscape and thus, a higher degree of democracy. In contrast, bipartisan landscapes as we find them in Thailand, Spain or Australia are prone to jump to and fro, causing a lot of inefficiency and designed corruption (as my Spanish friends would say “whoever is in charge, tries to steal as much as possible).
    That said, I still believe that direct democracy in itself is not as democratic as it sounds. Less so in a landscape that asks for ever more complex decisions, that however is increasingly manipulated by populist attitudes of a few hyper-rich.

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