In the aftermath of a successful referendum against “mass immigration” in Switzerland, German President Joachim Gauck crossed swords with his Swiss counterpart, Didier Burkhalter. EURACTIV Germany reports.
The EU and Switzerland face “great diplomatic challenges,” German President Joachim Gauck said during a state visit. The Swiss immigration referendum caused great irritation in Germany, Gauck said on the first day of his trip.
Meanwhile, he said he couldn’t imagine the country actually wanting to distance itself from Europe. “Switzerland has so much Europe within itself,” explained Gauck in the presence of his Swiss colleague, Didier Burkhalter.
Burkhalter responded, referring to Brussels’ decision to suspend discussions on education and research. “We don’t quite understand why the EU has already stopped negotiations on various issues,” he said.
On February 9, a Swiss referendum ended up voting in favor of an initiative “against mass immigration”, aimed at reintroducing immigration quotas for EU citizens.
Read >>: EU-Switzerland relations in turmoil after the immigration vote
But that would take effect in at least three years, Burkhalter reminded his guest, after the implementation of the referendum decision. For this reason, he called for “a dose of understanding and pragmatism on the part of European member states”.
But in Brussels and Berlin, the vote was received as many understood it: a signal of separation. Gauck, for whom freedom – including freedom of movement – plays a central role, objected to Burkhalter’s remark.
“In this age of globalization, we must not build walls, but rather exploit the opportunities of openness and diversity,” said the German president. He not only interprets the free movement of people as a “centerpiece of the common internal market”, he said, but also as a central factor for the whole project of European integration.
“Dangers” of direct democracy
With its long democratic tradition, Gauck said he could imagine Switzerland as an EU member state. Europe could learn a lot from the Swiss, in the treatment of minorities, for example.
Without doubt, the German president did not mean to introduce direct democracy in the EU with this declaration.
A strong supporter of representative democracy, Gauck warned the Swiss against the dangers of direct democracy “when citizens vote on very complex subjects”; a statement that could make many faces within the SVP.
Unlike Gauck, many SVP supporters see the will of the people as infallible and sacrosanct, even going above international law.
But even as a member of the FDP, Burkhalter could not agree and violently retorted his guest from Germany. “Europe could certainly support Switzerland more,” he replied.
“Referendums must be respected by the authorities, said the Swiss president,” advising regulators to be more humble; decisions taken unilaterally by the authorities are not automatically fair, he warned. Here, Burkhalter’s comments made clear reference to various instances in which the European Commission has been seen as over-regulatory.
Following the results of the Swiss vote, Gauck moved the long-awaited official visit from April 2-3. It was a gesture intended to strengthen friendly relations between Switzerland and Germany. On Wednesday April 2, he was to visit the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva.