On 27 September, nearly 62% of Swiss voters decided to retain the free movement that the country currently enjoys and has shared with the European Union since 2002, despite not being part of the Union. The referendum was proposed by the largest party in the Swiss parliament, the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) who were vocal about the benefits of securing greater control of the nation’s borders – an argument increasingly echoed across Europe in the wake of Covid-19. Nevertheless, the other political parties, trade unions and the current government all voiced their concerns and the public cast their votes.
Despite not being a member of the EU, there were several important economic and social reasons that were highlighted before and after the referendum as to why free movement is important to Switzerland. Over half (60%) of all Swiss exports go to Europe, and around 500,000 Swiss citizens live and work in the EU. In a press statement, the President of the European Commission von der Leyen also highlighted the fact that over a million EU citizens work in Switzerland with a further 320,000 crossing the border every day to work, and many employed in the health services.
Furthermore, the so-called ‘guillotine clause’ in the EU-Swiss international treaties governing free movement and trade means that a removal of one will result in the rescindment of all the others, potentially having devastating impacts on Swiss transport, research and trade. Accordingly, the decision to retain free movement has been labelled as a “great day” for EU-Swiss relations and a “confirmation of the confidence of the Swiss people in the EU”, one that could well have been positively impacted by the international multilateral cooperation that has been required to combat coronavirus on the continent.
However, what at first appears to be a decision rooted in social and economic pro-migration sentiments could in fact be representative of a wider trend affecting Europe’s voting populations. With the first wave of the virus having seemingly passed, citizens have been returning to polling stations and sending in their mail-ballots for national and regional elections and in doing so have highlighted their greatest current need – the need for consistency, familiarity and regularity, in a world wracked with uncertainty.
The recent regional elections in seven of Italy’s twenty regions (Aosta Valley, Apulia, Campania, Liguaria, Marche, Tuscany and Veneto) could, as with the Swiss referendum, be used as an indicator of pro-migration sentiments among the voting population. Indeed, Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigration League failed to win the traditionally left-held region of Tuscany, despite early polls suggesting such a likelihood. Instead, the ruling centre-left Democratic Party (PD) won the Tuscany seat and, across the regions, performed more strongly than many polls had suggested, only being defeated in Marche where the Brothers of Italy (FdI) took control.
When looking at all the regions, the pattern of continuity becomes clearer. Several of the incumbents returned with large majorities, and yet these victories occurred across the political spectrum, perhaps casting doubt on the importance of pro-migration sentiment. Luca Zaia, representing Salvini’s League, triumphed in Veneto with 76.8% of the vote; centre-right politician Giovanni Toti returned with 56%; and Vincenzo De Luca, representing the centre-left PD, won with 69.6% in Campania. From these results, it seems clear that rather than focussing on particular political, economic or even social issues, voters in these regional elections were looking to maintain the status quo, and not rock the boat any more than the Covid storm already has done.
Indeed, this trend is visible across the continent. According to Politico polling data, the upcoming Vienna local election in early October has seen the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPO) enjoy slight increases in its majority, and in the Netherlands, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) has continued to poll highly throughout the course of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the Croatian parliamentary elections in July, the ruling conservative Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) saw a surprise victory over the opposition Restart Coalition who were expected by many to oust HDZ from office. Even in Poland, one could argue that the re-election of Duda and the Law and Justice party (PiS) was more to do with the comfort of continuity than any of the individual social or economic issues raised throughout the presidential campaign.
Of course, as more countries like Romania, Portugal, and even the United States, head to the ballots in the coming months, we will have a better idea of whether this trend is being dictated by a need for continuity or other factors such as the perception of an incumbent’s handling of the virus. Nevertheless, regardless of the individual and national reasons behind these results, the real winners in Switzerland and Italy are the intra-European migrants and non-nationals who, in Switzerland, account for a quarter of the 8.6 million population.
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Biggins, E. (2020) Pandemics and Persistent Politicians: The link between Covid-19 and continuity, IDRN, 01 October. Available at: https://idrn.eu/democracy-and-civil-society/pandemics-and-persistent-politicians-the-link-between-covid-19-and-continuity [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].