OPERATION LIBERO is planning something, but he won’t say what. The Swiss liberal activist group is known for its creative campaigns against the referendums launched by the right-wing populist Swiss People’s Party (Please). On September 27, the latest initiative of its kind, to end freedom of movement with the EU, comes to a vote, and Operation Libero plans to stage an unspecified media stunt. The goal is to tease the politicians of the country, not to do too much to fit in EU, but to do too little. “They think the Swiss don’t want [more integration] with the EU, but that’s not true, ”says Laura Zimmermann, co-head of the group. “The times have changed.”
If so, Operation Libero deserves some credit. For decades, the tone of Swiss politics has been set by anti-immigrants Please, the biggest party in the country. In 2014, a Please initiative to renegotiate the treaty which leaves EU citizens live and work freely in Switzerland (and vice versa) unexpectedly won 50.3% of the vote. This prompted a circle of young liberals led by Flavia Kleiner, then 24, to launch Operation Libero. Their volunteers ran awareness campaigns under a hot pink logo. Rather than arguing in populist terms, the group has recast the debate. When the Please proposed to expel foreigners who commit even minor crimes, Operation Libero presented it as an attack on Switzerland’s precious rule of law.
Since then, all PleaseThe major initiatives of society have lost. Polls show that the current one is also likely to fail, with around 60% of the Swiss opposed. Many voters learned from the 2014 initiative: the EU refused to negotiate and the Swiss gave in. PleaseThe new, stronger proposal would force the government to abandon the treaty if it does not conclude a new one within a year. But seven crucial treaties with the EU are covered by a “guillotine clause” which suspends them all if one is repealed. Few Swiss imagine that they have much weight in Brussels.
The next fight will come after the vote. the EU wants the Swiss to sign an “institutional framework agreement” which obliges them to automatically adopt changes EU rules unless they specifically object. (Currently there is no obligation, but they usually follow anyway for fear of losing market access.) The two sides reached an agreement last year, but the Swiss delayed the referral to parliament until the end of the referendum. Thomas Aeschi, the PleaseThe head of parliament, warns that within the framework of the framework agreement EU rules could restrict the autonomy dear to the Swiss cantons and prevent them from granting tax breaks.
“I think it would be a good thing,” says Balthasar Glättli, leader of the Swiss Green Party. But the Greens fear that the framework agreement will undermine minimum wage guarantees. Justice Minister Karin Keller-Sutter of the center-right liberals supports the deal, as do pharmaceutical companies and banks. But there is no majority for this in the seven-member Federal Council which rules the country.
Swiss attitudes are mixed. Sotomo, a pollster, finds that most of them want a framework agreement with the EU rather than the current patchwork of treaties, but other polls show less support. Yet the Please lost momentum; the green and liberal parties were the big winners in last year’s election. Ms Kleiner, who recently left Operation Libero (“I turned 30,” she explains), thinks it’s a good time to try out new political narratives. Switzerland is a conservative country, but it may also be ready for a change. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “Est-ce en Europe?”