Special Reports
What is it about Switzerland?
By Gaither Stewart
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Nov 1, 2007, 00:44

ROME -- During the recent Swiss parliamentary elections I again tried to grasp what it is about Switzerland that makes it different from the rest of Europe. In fact, from the rest of the world. Did history make the Swiss? Or did they just want to be the individualists they are? For example, by what foresight did the Swiss last century elect Socialists to their government while Europe reacted to worker movements with Hitler and Mussolini?

Let�s take a look. First of all, the Swiss have long based their form of government on dialogue, social peace and �the magic formula� that permits the coexistence of different cultures, languages, religions and political parties in the same government.

The magic formula refers to the division of seats in the Federal Council, which is the central government. It is called magic because all major parties participate in it and because it has mirrored also the numeric force of each political party. For a half century the Federal Council was composed of two Socialists, two Christian Democrats and one Swiss People�s Party (SVP). In 2003 the magic formula cracked when the conservative SVP obtained two seats, reflecting the growth of the Right that has grown from 9 percent in 1980 to 29 percent today.

National elections on October 21 effected another change in that magic formula: on a wave of xenophobia and racism the far-right SVP led by the multi-billionaire Christoph Blocher running on an anti-Islamic and anti-EU ticket won another perplexing parliamentary victory. It is still unclear what this will mean in the Swiss Confederation that has existed since 1291 and has not been in a war since 1815. Unclear, because on December 12 the newly elected Parliament will elect the new federal government.

Most people know surprisingly little about Switzerland. It is an exotic place even to many Europeans, unsure of exactly where St. Moritz or Davos are located. Switzerland is not generally a favorite of Italians. Germans think of southern Switzerland as a Shangri-La where palm trees grow. North Americans tend to see it as a land of mountains and meadows, chic ski resorts, international conferences and organizations, and the secret bank accounts that spice espionage and crime novels and films. For the Swiss those images however are a minor part of reality, something like the Statue of Liberty for New Yorkers.

A Swiss journalist friend, moderate in his political views, considers the election results a negative development for Switzerland, though he admits that not much will change immediately. For two reasons: the central government itself is weak and the people anyway have the last word even in federal parliamentary decisions in the form of the referendum that can be called on any issue on the basis of 50,000 signatures. Above all, the victory of the right-wing populists demonstrates that the 21 percent of foreigners in the country are a problem, though above all emotional.

The right-wing SVP People�s Party garnered nearly one-third of the vote for the Federal Council while other major parties except the Greens lost heavily. The SVP, the party of rural and small-town Switzerland, has the Swiss people behind it with regard to restrictions on immigration and easier expulsions, so it will undoubtedly endeavor to push through tougher anti-immigrant legislation.

Switzerland and the European Union

My journalist friend from Zurich recalls that the Swiss voted down membership in the European Union for the second time in 2001. And though more or less half of the Swiss people oppose the EU while the other half, including the federal government, favor membership, he doesn't foresee another referendum to join Europe in the next 10 years. Highly critical of the bloated and unwieldy EU bureaucracy, Swiss people simply see more advantages in the country�s traditional independence. Today there are few signs of warming to pro-EU feelings.

Perhaps it is above all a question of the pocketbook. Swiss do not want to have their taxation policies dictated to them by the EU where most of the member countries levy a 35-45 percent income tax and 18-20 percent VAT/IVA. Personal income tax in Switzerland is 16 percent, while VAT ranges from 2 percent-7 percent. Moreover, EU membership would open the floodgates for even more immigrants from the East, a horrifying prospect to the Swiss, considering that 21 percent of the country�s population of 7.5 million is made up of foreigners.

Today as yesterday life in Switzerland is good, now less expensive than in EU countries with their high-powered euro currency. Before the euro went into circulation in the EU in 2002, Swiss drove across the Italian border for cheaper shopping, to the delight of Italian businesses. Today it�s the reverse, northern Italians drive into Switzerland to shop where everything is cheaper. At the same time per capita earnings in Switzerland are higher than in most European countries, higher than in the USA. Even Swiss cows are fat, sleek and happy. So why change?

Like many issues in Switzerland, opinion about membership in the European Union follows ethnic lines. The majority German-speakers -- about 65 percent -- oppose joining the EU, while the minority Francophone area -- some 22 percent -- favor it.

On the whole, the Swiss prefer to run their own affairs, the principle on which the Confederatio Helvetica was founded eight centuries ago. Tradition is strong. Despite the victory of the right-wing populists there are no indications of a change even toward more centralization inside Switzerland. Swiss people, governed by three legal jurisdictions -- communal, cantonal and federal -- would immediately vote down in a referendum suggestions of relinquishing any of their jealously guarded cantonal rights.

International Headquarters Switzerland

Chiefly because of Switzerland�s reputation of independence and neutrality, which even Nazi Germany respected, the small country hosts a great number of international organizations. Here are some of them: Nine UN organizations, including the World Health Organization, and over 200 non-governmental advisory organizations to the UN, the League of Nations, the International Federation of Human Rights, WWF, the World Trade Organization, the International Red Cross, Red Crescent and Caritas, and the International Federation of Inspection Agencies

Swiss banks, secrecy and the gnomes of Zurich

The myth of numbered and secret Swiss accounts is repeated over and over in book and film. Though less is known about what Swiss banks actually do, the explanation of their successes is there for everyone to see: secrecy. Anyone who has enough money can open a Swiss numbered account. Secrecy is the point.

Swiss banks are accused of everything and anything, from holding criminal monies from Nazi Germany, the dirty money of various mafias and corrupt right-wing political leaders of the world, to laundering those funds. Less is known about the latter. It is not at all clear how the Swiss banks have used legal and dirty money to become so powerful as to control a vast gamut of activities far removed from investment banking and outside any controls other than their own.

For example, who said Swiss banks could offer clients of the world secret bank accounts?

They did.

Like most banks, Swiss banks engage heavily in oil and gas trading, and they are the world�s biggest traders in gold, silver, platinum and diamonds. Swiss banks are accused of intentionally bankrupting Enron, of which they were the real owners, just as they bankrupted Swissair. They control many multinationals, many of which, like Nestle, are located in Switzerland. Critics charge that Swiss banks actually control much of the world�s money supply and contribute to establishing the value of global currencies.

According to more far-fetched theories, Swiss banks own the world and they stand staunchly behind the desire to create a �new world order.�

Despite current reports to the contrary, as a rule banks just get richer and richer, investing in wars and the tools of war, while the poor of the world get poorer and poorer. One has to wonder to wonder how it happened that powerful Swiss banks emerged in one of the world�s smallest countries. A frequent answer is that they have been ready to hold and launder money for anyone. Therefore, their golden rule of secrecy.

Today the infamous Swiss banks have been reduced to two: the United Bank of Switzerland (UBS) and Credit Suisse, two banks which in turn own the smaller �private banks� spread across the country and the globe.

So who owns the Swiss banks?

The answer is not at all clear. One answers that the gnomes of Zurich own them!

But who are the gnomes of Zurich? No one seems to know. No one has ever seen the gnomes or even spoken with them.

Most certainly, as the Swiss journalist charges, the ugly face of racism in Switzerland is bad for Europe where racism is again raising its dangerous head. On the other hand, for good or bad, the Swiss elections show that nationalism there is alive and vigorous.

Moreover, that nationalism is emblematic of a turn, a new twist, in European thinking in late 2007. Today, despite the rhetoric to the contrary from the European capital in Brussels, the nationalistic and Euroskeptic voices across the Old World seem louder than only a year ago. Pride in national achievements and culture combined with a desire to preserve its character, its values, its culture and identification with other members of the nation are primary in each European country. A strong comeback of nationalism is just around the corner.

Gaither Stewart is originally from Asheville, NC. After studies at the University of California at Berkeley and other American universities, he has lived his adult life abroad, in Germany and Italy, alternated with residences in The Netherlands, France, Mexico, Argentina and Russia. After a career in journalism as Italian correspondent for the Rotterdam newspaper, Algemeen Dagblad, and contributor to media in various European countries, he writes fiction full-time. His books, "Icy Current Compulsive Course, To Be A Stranger" and "Once In Berlin" are published by Wind River Press. His new novel, "Asheville," is published by www.Wastelandrunes.com He lives with his wife, Milena, in Rome, Italy. E-mail: gaither.stewart@yahoo.it.

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