Tag Archives: France

What the Brexit Vote Teaches Us about Direct Democracy (and the Future of Democracy)

Yesterday’s Brexit vote was widely seen as a referendum on referenda. The populist right across Europe now routinely is demanding to take issues directly to the people in order to bypass the parliamentary process which has not produced desired outcome–a process The Economist recently dubbed Referendumania. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has demanded for years that important issues like EU membership should be voted on by the electorate. Prime Minister David Cameron gave in to the demands in order to win the last election, feeling confident that he would win the vote and thus quiet the right-wing opposition. The gamble backfired: Cameron lost both the vote and his job.

The price Britain will pay for playing with the populist fire is potentially steep. Scotland voted overwhelmingly in favor of staying in the EU and now wants a second vote on independence. In Northern Ireland, the vote opened up old confessional lines of cleavage: Protestant Unionists voted for the Brexit, Catholics against. And the City of London may lose its position as premier financial market in Europe. Most importantly, the British economy will face an uncertain future. The EU is unlikely to sign off on free trade arrangements of the sort Norway and Switzerland enjoy because such a deal would encourage other member nations to leave as well. Furthermore, it took Switzerland a couple of decades to arrive at its current, admittedly cushy relationship with the EU.

Governments in other European countries no doubt will try to avoid this populist trap. This will enrage the masses even more, and demands for more democracy will become ever louder. In the wake of the British vote, the German right-wing party Alternative for Germany (AfD) has demanded more direct democracy for Germany. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Front National, promised a referendum on the Frexit if she is elected president of France next year. And the Dutch right-wing leader Geert Wilders announced a push for the Nexit.

One real concern is that this type of referendum is susceptible to lies and deception. The Brexit campaign was run entirely as a post-truth campaign. Its most visible element was the Vote Exit campaign bus run by Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London and possible successor as prime minister. The inscription on the side of the bus made a bold claim: “We send the EU £350m a week.”

False claim on Boris Johnson’s Vote Exit campaign bus: “We send the EU £350m a week.” (Reuters)

As it turns out, the figure is wrong. It disregards the massive rebate Britain has received since 1985, and it does not include the EU payments that flow back to British institutions. But facts just did not matter in this campaign that was ruled by anger and fear and dominated by issues like immigration and sovereignty. Michael Gove, co-chair of the Leave campaign and current minister of justice, was asked to name a single independent economic authority who thought Brexit was a good idea. His response: “I think people in this country have had enough of experts.”

The counter-example to this narrative is Switzerland. Swiss voters go to the ballot box four times a year to decide three or four issues each time. Direct democracy in Switzerland has grown organically into the fabric of Swiss politics since the late 19th century. Both the government and the media generally do a good job to inform the public on the facts and on the pros and cons of the issues to be voted on. As a result, Switzerland has developed a polity that is structured from the bottom up and that allows voters to participate in decision-making processes on all levels of government. This system has produced an educated and knowledgeable electorate that is much less likely to be fooled by deceptive populist rhetoric.

Political systems create political cultures as much as political cultures shape political systems. Countries like Britain and Germany have a strong tradition of parliamentary democracy. Voters elect leaders who represent them in parliament that in turns forms a government which it controls. This mechanism does not really allow for an alternate decision-making process, for instance in the form of a referendum, as the political culture does not have the tools to deal with it. A system that works exceedingly well in Switzerland therefore could turn toxic for Britain, with the potential of doing the same in other European countries.

There are two reasons why the current populist anger is directed at the European Union and why referenda could accelerate the unraveling of the EU. The European Union has been an elite project. It has done a poor job explaining to Europeans how it has brought peace and prosperity to a continent that had been ravaged by two world wars, how it helped Spain, Portugal and Greece transition away from fascist dictatorships, and how it supported countries formerly in the Soviet bloc both politically and economically. But it also created institutions that are not transparent and that delegate too many decisions to bureaucrats in Brussels. And it has thoroughly mismanaged the Greek debt crisis. Thus it has become an easy target for malcontents.

The second reason is that Globalization has contributed to the de-industrialization of Western Europe (as well as North America). This has created massive wage stagnation and chronic unemployment among the working classes, and it has spawned unprecedented levels of global migration. European populists successfully managed to blame the European Union for both. In reality, 1.5 billion workers, mostly in China and India, have joined the global labor market over the past quarter century which has created extraordinary pressures. On top of that, the digital revolution has begun to make human labor redundant–a trend that may lead to massive unemployment in developed societies in the future. The EU is responsible for none of this: British voters will soon discover that leaving the EU will not lessen the competitive pressures on British industry, nor will it ease migration pressures.

Western democracies have become vulnerable to populist deception. Boris Johnson will be rewarded for his deceptive politics by inheriting the job of Prime Minister. He also wrote the playbook for Donald Trump on how to win a fact-free campaign that is not restrained by the limitations of truth. Maurine Le Pen is favored to win the French presidency next year. And Angela Merkel, the lone beacon of reason in European politics, may well stumble over the populist furor raised by the refugee crisis. Direct democracy which has given Switzerland unparalleled political stability and economic success may also become the political idea that will give the populist right the tools to undo the European Union.

 

Xhaka vs. Xhaka: Swiss Debates about Immigration and National Identity

The world was watching today as Switzerland and Albania met in a qualifying-round soccer match at the European Championship in France. Switzerland won 1-0. The game got world-wide attention because two brothers were playing on opposite teams: Granit Xhaka for Switzerland and Taulant Xhaka for Albania.

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The Xhaka brothers Taulant (left) and Granit embracing before the game. (Screenshot Blick.com)

Whenever US national teams in any sport play in a big tournament, the expectation typically is that the US will win it all–soccer (known was football in the rest of the world) being an exception. Small countries rarely expect their sports teams to win a big tournament. Often, just qualifying for it suffices to get fans excited. When Switzerland beat Spain during the 2010 World Cup, fans were ecstatic. Spain went on to win the World Cup, Switzerland was eliminated because of a loss against Chile and a draw against Honduras, and everybody was happy. So symbolic victories matter and have an afterlife in the psyche of small countries with implications for national identity formation.

For Albania, the game was important because this is the first time ever that the Albanian national team qualified for a big tournament–World Cup or European Championship. To the Albanians, being there was more important than winning. This is why some streets of Zurich were dominated by Albanian immigrants who were in a celebratory mood in spite of the loss of their team. One Albanian fan told the Zurich daily Tages-Anzeiger that Albania was represented at the Euro with 38 players, more than any other country: “We feel like victors because the Swiss national team consists predominantly of Albanians.”

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Albanians celebrating: post-game parade in Zurich’s Langstrasse. Some Swiss showing colors as well. (Tages-Anzeiger)

And this is exactly the reason why some Swiss do not feel like celebrating. The Swiss national team over the past few years has become a focal point of the tempestuous debate about immigration, integration, naturalization and national identity which has been virulent in Switzerland since the early 1970s. When the Swiss Under-17 team unexpectedly won the World Cup in 2009, the Swiss public was surprised to learn that two-thirds of the players on that team had a migration background.  Many of these players have now moved up to the senior team.

Of the eleven players in the starting lineup of today’s game, only three do not have a migration background–interestingly the goal keeper and two defenders, while all mid-fielders and strikers do have a migration background. Five players have roots in Albania or in Kosovo (which is ethnically Albanian), and one additional player has roots in Bosnia. So the Albanian fans got it right: they do have reason to celebrate. At the same time, an informal survey of the Swiss tabloid Blick indicates that 58% of its readers do not identify with their national team.

The example of the Xhaka brothers illustrates what has become the norm in Swiss and indeed in European soccer. Both Xhaka brothers were born in Switzerland to Kosovo-Albanian parents who escaped collapsing Yugoslavia in 1989. Both grew up in Basel and learned to play soccer in local clubs. Both profited from the efforts of the Swiss Soccer Federation that since the early 1990s has made it their mission to help integrate the children of immigrants into Swiss society through soccer.

Taulant, born in 1991, still plays for the FC Basel and has collected four Swiss championship trophies with his club. Granit, born in 1992, transferred to Borussia Mönchengladbach, an elite German Bundesliga team, in 2012. Last month, it was announced that he will transfer to Arsenal next season. Both brothers played for Swiss national youth squads, but only Granit was invited to the senior team, while Taulant was invited to play in the Albanian national team in 2013. So Taulant plays for a Swiss club, but for the Albanian national team, while Granit chose a career in the Bundesliga and the Premier League but still plays for the Swiss national team.

Populists vilify both a nascent multicultural society in Switzerland in general and immigrants in particular because of their supposed lack in strength, character, conviction and commitment to their new country. Commentators from the populist right have denounced prominent Swiss players with a migration background because they allegedly lack loyalty towards their adoptive country as they play for a foreign national team, foreign club team, or both. While native Swiss players enjoy great support for seeking fame and fortune abroad, this is not the case for players with a migration background who play for a foreign club, like Granit, or worse, for a foreign national team, like Taulant. The Xhaka brothers very much represent the globalized cosmopolitan world of elite soccer in Europe where top teams buy top players regardless of nationality. But a more parochial Swiss public examines ‘their’ players with migration background for their ‘Swissness’ and finds them mostly wanting, as a desire to play abroad is seen as lacking ambition to integrate.

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Split loyalties: mother Xhaka wearing a t-shirt combining the flags of Albania and Switzerland. (Daily Mail Online)

At the 2014 World Cup, the Swiss team was the most cosmopolitan and was widely praised as a model for integration. But recently, questions of integration and identification with Switzerland have flared up within the national team as well. A frustrated Stephan Lichtsteiner, a star player at Juventus Turin and one of the few players without migration background, started the debate when two players with a long history with the national team were cut from the roster for the qualifier against Estonia in March 2015. He angrily told the rightist Basel daily Basler Zeitung: “To me it is not about the`true Swiss’ and the ‘other Swiss,’ rather it is about the question whether people still can identify with the the national team.”

Observers believe that this was a public acknowledgment that a powerful Albanian bloc has emerged in the Swiss national team and that the team is not nearly as integrated as perceived by the public. Lichtsteiner’s statement certainly did not not improve the public image of the Swiss national team at best and played into the populist rhetoric at worst. In that context, Albania was the worst-possible opponent for Switzerland. It is a good thing that the Albanian-Swiss managed to win over the Albanian team–otherwise the public backlash in Switzerland questioning the loyalty of their players would have been palpable. But then these players are professionals who want to play soccer, win games, and be successful in their careers–and who are annoyed about being drawn into integration and identification debates. So the true winners of today’s game: the Xhaka brothers.