What should we remember about 2015? Marked by terrorism in Europe, the Middle-East and even in the USA, the world faced the political consequences of this new phenomenon that seems to characterise the 21st century. The recent evolutions in the Syrian war put migrants at the forefront of newspapers and Europe is facing a new challenge. But how have Europeans reacted to these changes? Have national security, migrant and terrorism issues – which are closely interconnected –brought about political changes?
The Big picture
Recent news from Denmark and Sweden which have decided to stop migrant trains coming from central Europe could be seen as a dramatic change in the attitudes of these traditionally open border countries. Danish voters also voted against closer integration with the EU in a referendum on January 3rd ,saying NO to strengthening links with the EU for Justice and Home Affairs and to adopting an opt in arrangement. What we can forecast in 2016 in the light of the recent major elections which took place in France and Switzerland is a revival of Populists in Europe with a new triptych: No to the EU, No to migrants and Yes to increased national security.
A Swiss “Rechtsruch”
Winning 29.4% of the vote, up from 26.6% in 2015 parliamentary elections, the anti-immigration Swiss people party (SVP) came first with the largest share of the vote. Thus the SVP will have 65 MPs in the lower House, which corresponds to an increase of 11 seats compared with the 2011 previous election. With hindsight, this election could be qualified as a “Rechtsruch” (“slide to the right”) if we consider the global results of the right which include the Liberals (FDP), the Geneva Citizens’ Movement and the Ticino League.
Whereas the right wing parties did very well, the Social Democratic Party (SPS) and the Green Party (GPS, GLP excluded) failed to convince Swiss voters that they would be able to cope with the new triptych that dominated the electoral campaign. While the SVP (equivalent to UKIP) victory will give the party 65 seats out a total of 200 in the lower house, the FDP (equivalent to The Conservatives) won 33 seats (+ 3 compared to the last 2011 election) and far right parties such as the Geneva Citizens’ Movement and the Ticino League both won one seat.
On the other hand, parties at the centre and left obviously lacked voter support with only 10 seats for the Greens (-5 compared to 2011) and 43 seats for the Socialists i.e. a drop of 3 seats.
Two main teachings can be drawn from this expected success: first the Sovereigntists, embodied by the SVP were able to obtain an absolute majority (all right wing parties won 101 seats in the lower house).This new position will allow them to undoubtedly weigh on hot topics such as the bilateral agreements with the EU, including the free movement of workers and the quotas on people moving from the EU, but especially on the asylum seekers and national security threats issue.
Secondly, there has been a clear political trend since 1971 in Switzerland: the SVP has been increasing its share of the vote in national parliamentary election. In 1971, it won only 23 seats with 11.1% of the popular vote, then in 1999, 44 seats with 22.5% of the vote and 54 seats in the last 2011 federal Assembly elections with 26.6%. With the 2015 result, it has almost tripled its seats and obviously gathers an increasing number of supporters: 740,954 voters in 1971 and 2,117,908 in 2015, that is to say a staggering increase of 186%!
What drove voters to give overwhelming support to the SVP?
To understand how an openly anti-immigration and anti-Islam party has met such success, one needs to know that about 25% of Switzerland’s eight million inhabitants are foreign nationals and that according to the Gfs.bern polling institute the cost of immigration and asylum tends to be one of the main concerns of voters. If you link this poll to the fact that a majority of migrants come from Muslim countries, and that the SVP is the main party claiming for tougher policies on immigration and Islamic religious practices and terrorism in Switzerland, it is then obvious that the migrant crisis has fuelled strong support for closing borders.
The threat of asylum seekers coming from war-zones like Syria or Afghanistan made the news in the weeks before the elections and the SVP campaigned against a stronger relationship with the EU which would lead to an increasing number of immigrants. Indeed, with a surge of 20% of new demands for asylum between January and July 2015, Switzerland had not expected such an increase and many voters do not feel prepared to bear the high cost of these asylum seekers.
According to the SVP, the asylum industry costs CHF 6bn each year whereas alternative sources estimate the real cost to CHF 1.2bn.Whatever the source, one can easily understand that this cost is not negligible for a small country like Switzerland. Worse, after 10 years of presence in Swiss, the activity rate for refugees aged 18 to 65 is only 48%. Under these circumstances, it was easy for the SVP to convince voters that tougher policies are needed.
On the other side, the Socialist candidate Rebecca Ruiz told RTS: “People voted out of fear”, whereas SVP leader Tonni Brunner told Swiss Television: “people are worried about mass migration to Europe” and to the AFP: “We have to make Europe less attractive and send a signal that we cannot give asylum here, not even to refugees of war”. In the same way Roger Golay, MP and president of the MCG in Geneva said “We want to control immigration [..] it is not possible to increase our public spending and our social budget by widely opening the borders, while a great number of young people here have no jobs”. Thus the famous picture of the young boy Aylan discovered dead on a Turkish beach, his head in the sand, had no effect on voters.
The SVP warned about the consequences of Muslim migrants through ads claiming that both Islam and European Union were a dangerous threat and posted slogans like “stay free”. In more ways than one, the radical speech by the Sovereigntist party changed the face of Switzerland in 2015 and its future. By sending 65 SVP candidates to the lower house for the first time of its modern history, Swiss voters chose an alternative attitude to EU membership. This will certainly impact the attitudes of David Cameron and Jean Claude Junker concerning the 2017 British referendum which could see the Britons showing as little love for Europe as the Swiss.
Swiss voters validated the traditional SVP rhetoric
When it comes to the triptych: no EU, no migrants and increased national security, Swiss voters recognized in the SPV, the champion that would help them fight Islamism. One must underline this anti-migrant stance in the SVP ideology to really understand what this party stands for. In short, Islam is considered as a threat to the Swiss traditional way of life. An SVP campaign led a majority of Swiss people to vote massively for a popular initiative to ban the construction of minarets. One should also know that the Schengen agreement allows the free circulation of people within the EU thus enabling people to move from Greece or Italy to Switzerland (since 2008) without any controls. That is why the SVP considers the EU as a threat to its fight against migrants. For the SVP, the EU is not so much an airlock but a network of tunnels; and their goal is now to shut down as many of these tunnels as possible, especially those coming from North Africa and Middle East. This anti-immigration rhetoric convinced the Swiss to support the federal popular initiative “for the expulsion of foreign criminals” (52.3%).
Beyond this “No-migrants” policy, the SPV also strongly criticizes the EU intervention and judicial influence on Swiss internal affairs. The most relevant example is also linked to immigration. In 1999, the Swiss government signed a freedom of movement agreement with the EU (which Swiss voters approved by referendum in 2005 and came into effect on December 2008) allowing EU inhabitants to travel and reside freely in Switzerland. But, almost 15 years later on February 9th 2014, the SVP won a federal popular initiative (50.3%) “Against mass immigration” giving the Swiss Council 3 years to renegotiate a new agreement with the EU, limiting the access to Switzerland to EU citizens. As things stand, the Swiss oppose the supra-national law contained in the Bilateral I agreements (1999).
However, the EU has threatened the Swiss government (“Guillotine clause”) to break other agreements related to academic exchanges, notably the Erasmus programme (included in the Science section) if any modifications were made in the national law concerning the freedom of movement. In other words, a non-elected group – the European commission – is refusing to take into account this democratic vote 50.3%. This raises the problem of conflicts between national law and EU law. This particular case illustrates why Swiss people do not wish a closer relationship with the EU. Indeed, the latter has refused to limit or renegotiate the agreement. But there is a good reason for this: if the EU caves in to Switzerland on the bilateral I agreement, it will weaken its bargaining power with the UK over the renegotiation of its membership.
In the end, the last question which remains is why, with almost 30% of the share of votes in this national parliamentary election, the SVP only has 1 seat in the Swiss Federal Council? Indeed, the latter is always composed of 7 seats, traditionally shared among the major parties from right to left under an agreement called the “magic formula”, aimed at ensuring political stability (2 seats for PS, 2 seats for FDP, 2 seats for the greens and 1 seat for SPV).
This lack of representativeness in a country which has often been praised for the efficiency of its democratic system seems illogical when you look at the other European countries where the majority is often reflected in the composition of the government. Surprisingly, this issue was not raised by the French sovereigntist politician Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National (French far right party) when she tweeted to claim her party’s support to the SVP “Throughout Europe, the people are saying No to the flood of migration”.
The French surge
In the French regional elections in December 2015, The French sovereigntist party, the Front National scored surprisingly well with 29.5% of the vote, which compares with the SVP’s 29.4%, and Marine Le Pen could boast that the FN was now “The first party in France”. The right wing alliance between Les Republicains, the MODEM and UDI (equivalent to Conservatives and Libdem) and the left alliance between the Parti Socialiste, PRG (equivalent to Labour) and affiliated scored respectively 27% and 23% of the votes. In fact, the Front National came first in 6 regions out of 13 after the first round of voting, whereas Les Republicains and the Parti Socialiste led respectively in 4 and 3 regions.
The three main leaders of the Front National, Marine Le Pen, Marion Marechal-Le Pen (her niece) and Florian Philippot (Vice-President of the Front National) came first in the first round of voting with respectively 40.64%, 40.55%, and 36.06%. This large share of the vote was unprecedented for a party which had not been considered as a serious challenger until Marine le Pen succeeded her father at the head of the party in 2014. She conducted a policy of « de-demonization of the Front National » to detoxify it and soften its image, based on renovated positions and renewed teams. This new strategy combines left wing and conservative social and economic policies with the same slogans as the SVP: stop migrants, leave the EU, and strengthen national security policy to prevent the Islamist threat.
However, in the second round of voting, The FN only came third with 27.1% of the votes behind the Republicans – MODEM – UDI alliance (40.24%, 7 regions won) and the Parti Socialiste, PRG and affiliated (32.12%, 5 regions won).
If we consider the big picture, it was a defeat since the FN lost in the regions they had hoped to conquer, but in the same way as the SVP, the party saw this election as a great success. Indeed, their defeat in two regions (Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur) was made possible by the French left alliance withdrawing from the race in favour of the conservative alliance. Right-wing nominees such as Xavier Bertrand (57%) and Christian Estrosi (54%) won respectively against Marine Le Pen and Marion Marechal Le Pen in the two regions. But in absolute value, the FN increased its number of votes by 200% and ore 358 FN regional councillors were elected out of a total of 1,722, that is to say 20.8%.
If sovereigntism opposes and is often defined as the contrary of federalism, one must point out the fact that today, a sovereigntist trusts in both popular sovereignty and Westphalian sovereignty. Indeed, the first consists in the authority of a state and its government thanks to the consent of its people through organized elections making them the source of the power and its main avatars: the legal system. The second concept is based on the peace of Westphalia treaty and asserts that the nation state has sovereignty over its territory and domestic affairs, to the exclusion of all external powers, such as the UE, whose Commission is composed of non-elected members.
In other words, Sovereigntists believe that the power should emanate from a parliament elected by the people and that the decisions modelling the future of a nation should therefore only belong to their representatives. Thus, they condemned for instance the power of the Commission on trade agreements as shown in the case of “BT11 genetically modified Maize” when it was revealed that the Commission had authorized it thanks to the comitology process of which Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are excluded and which even gives exclusive power to the commission when it uses the Advisory procedure. In these conditions, the sovereigntism should be understood as a wish that the political decisions should be taken by the nation’s people and without the influence of any extra-national individuals.