Felix Helvetia!

by Lorenzo Piccoli

Michael Wohlgemuth and Lars FeldFrankfurter have written a splendid piece for the Allgemeine Zeithung, which has been translated and published on PressEurop. The article starts from the simple observation that political representation and responsiveness is a matter of the structure that binds citizens and policy-makers. In a democracy, politicians ought to act on behalf of the people, and theoretically, the citizen is the true ruler. In practice, however, this is rarely the case.

Switzerland is one remarkable exception. Obviously there are many problems with Swiss democracy too. There is one thing, however, that works very well: referendums. Nowhere is direct democracy as pronounced as it is in Switzerland. Swiss law says that any issue can be put to a referendum if it attains 100,000 signatures to do so. The rules further state that for a measure to be nationally adopted into the constitution it has to get a majority of both votes and the number cantons that support the issue. Referendums are extremely common in Switzerland. Only in 2012, there have been 12. The results are rather clear and robust: when the citizens have a direct voice in how their own money is spent, regional authorities spend less on government. Political decisions can also be both prompted and revoked through citizens’ initiatives, if the citizens so desire. And any transfer of sovereignty to a higher level must be confirmed directly by the people. The question is: can direct democratic procedures like referenda and popular initiatives be recommended for other European countries, not least when it comes to European policy issues?

The answer is: not exactly. An EU-wide referendum on the introduction of eurobonds, the expansion of the bailout funds or further tax harmonisation would not contribute towards overcoming the “democratic deficit” in the EU. For one thing, democracy requires a demos, a European people that can create and express a European “solidarity” and a European public opinion. This is not on the horizon for the moment. The European democratic deficit starts at the level of the member states. This is where direct democracy has an important role. The right thing to do would be to apply direct democracy as it is traditionally and successfully practised in Switzerland: the citizens must be able to decide at a local level what is to be done with their own money.