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Britain after Brexit: steadily becoming more Swiss

Many comparisons were made between the UK and Switzerland in the lead up to Britain’s EU referendum. Switzerland has long been employed as an example of a supposedly self-assured, stable democracy that stands on its own within Europe – a position many Vote Leave campaigners admired.

In her poem “Our lives are Swiss”, written in the 1800s, Emily Dickinson spoke to an insulated status quo, and an exceptional moment in which “the Alps neglect their curtains, And we look farther on” out towards Italy. I am not suggesting that Switzerland is actually insular, or that the Brexit referendum result necessarily means that Europe will recede from regular view – I sincerely hope not.

But now that the UK has voted for Brexit, the similarities between the UK and Switzerland have become all the more striking.

In the 21st century, the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) has mobilised voters and turned national referendums into a vehicle for anti-EU, anti-immigration politics, much like the UK Independence Party has done in Britain.

When I took up my post at the University of Bern in 2014, a Swiss referendum on immigration had resulted in 50.3% voting in favour of quotas for all immigrants, setting Switzerland on a collision course with the EU over its treaty on freedom of movement. This percentage was the same as the Swiss 50.3% vote against the country joining the European Economic Area in 1992. Both times there were splits between the city and the countryside, and between linguistic areas. These were not dissimilar to what happened in the voting lines in the UK’s referendum: the French-speaking cantons were like Switzerland’s Scotland and Northern Ireland, so to speak, and Zurich the UK’s London.

Universities on edge

Following Switzerland’s 2014 referendum, the EU swiftly put a stop to Erasmus+ student and academic exchange agreements, and university colleagues feared for the future of research funding and pan-European collaboration. Less than a year after starting work in Sheffield, my UK university colleagues are currently voicing similar concerns about the future of EU research.

In the aftermath of the 2014 referendum, Switzerland is only partially associated with the EU’s Horizon 2020 initiative of the European Research Area. The Swiss government stumped up the cash to replace Erasmus+ with the Swiss-European Mobility Programme for university students. It is more or less the same scheme as before, under a new name: except that Switzerland funds the students visiting from abroad as well as those leaving Switzerland for an international partner university.

As post-Brexit negotiations begin, universities will strongly be making the case to maintain the status quo.

Our lives are Swiss. Pranavian/, CC BY

Negotiated position

After the vote for Brexit, the UK’s negotiations with Europe will take a while. Switzerland is still struggling to reconcile the 2014 referendum outcome with the EU’s stance. The deadline for the Swiss referendum’s implementation is February 2017, but the Swiss government sees Brexit as a hindrance to those efforts, worrying that its own negotiations will become a lower priority for Brussels.

If the Brexit referendum stokes calls for referendums throughout Europe, Britain’s dealings could also drag on further. The UK and Switzerland could enter into negotiations with the EU together – though this might be perceived as going against the spirit of the rhetoric of the winning referendum camps in both countries, which argued for each nation to take charge of its own negotiation.

Meanwhile, some in the Remain camp are shouting in Britain for a re-run of the vote, taking their cue from Ireland’s “Lisbon II” referendum on a new EU treaty in 2009 after it was rejected at the ballot box on a previous attempt the year before. As the complexities and consequences of Brexit become clearer, more referendums may be no bad thing, in the style of Switzerland’s direct democracy. Turnout on June 23 was 72.2%, higher than in any general election over the past 20 years. Issues fire up the British electorate, while enthusiasm for party politics is fading.

Identity crises

Switzerland has a long tradition of debating “Swissness”, of which Britain should take note. Admittedly, the Austrian writer Robert Musil complained in 1941 that the Swiss liked to talk about nothing else. Swissness today can still seem obsessive, to be sure: the national library not only collects material published in Switzerland (as the British library collects material published in Britian), but also all works by Swiss authors, from all over the world and across all media. And there is the danger that Swissness can mean nationalistic kitsch.

Yet discussions about Swissness have also supported a broad range of perspectives – to the extent that much of contemporary Swiss literature, in the German language anyway, engages with questions of Swiss identity, Europe and wider immigration issues. Authors such as Martin Dean, Dorothee Elmiger, Micieli Francesco, Ilma Rakusa and others contribute to a multifaceted debate.

The Brexit referendum has given a voice to divergent views about what it means to be British in the context of Europe. It is imperative that whatever happens in the near future, in negotiations or in the financial markets, the many voices of Britain continue to be heard, and are engaged with critically. That entails engagement through politics, and of course education. Cultural engagement, through literature and the arts, can be productive too.

The British people may have decided on June 23, but they must keep on deciding on what the future holds for the UK-EU relationship.

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