The Korea Herald


[Herald Interview] ‘Swiss direct democracy enfranchises citizens’

By Joel Lee

Published : June 12, 2017 - 22:09

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Every so often, Swiss citizens go to the polling stations to vote on issues relevant to their lives, ranging from national energy to local roads and everything in between.

They often cast votes more conservatively than their elected officials would, believing firmly that nothing is free and pork barrel politics ultimately comes out of their pockets.

In a prudent and wise decision on the country’s national energy, Swiss citizens voted to phase out nuclear power and switch to renewable sources in May. In another referendum in June last year, they overwhelmingly rejected the call for basic income for all citizens, citing fiscal pressure, a choice that would likely have been embraced with open arms in many societies.

“We are in charge, not the politicians,” said Swiss Ambassador to Korea Linus von Castelmur in an interview, referring to the country’s direct democracy.

“Our system of direct democracy and citizen participation is healthy and proves the strength and maturity of our citizenry, historical consciousness, as well as institutions and other state organs. It is also the single-most important factor for Switzerland to have rejected the call to join the European Union in 1992.”

Swiss Ambassador to Korea Linus von Castelmur (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald) Swiss Ambassador to Korea Linus von Castelmur (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)

According to the envoy, who assumed his post in Korea last September, Switzerland’s longstanding tradition of involving the citizens in every national and cantonal choice through referendum can be traced back to the 14th and 15th centuries, when the country was constructed out of the Holy German Empire.

The Swiss sovereignty was legitimately recognized in the Westphalian peace treaty of 1648, and until today, the neutral and peace-loving people of the Alps have strongly valued independence and self-determination, he highlighted.

“We think that the smaller the community the more enlightened and autonomous decisions we can make, according to our own needs and wishes and free from outside influences,” von Castelmur said. “Our direct democracy is not easily compatible with being an EU member, and the majority of our people have felt that they would lose part of their democratic rights and freedom through membership in the continental bloc.”

Underlining Switzerland’s material and social prosperity based on a highly advanced knowledge economy, the envoy said, “We are doing fine politically and economically. There was no compelling reason to join the EU for economic benefits.”

The main benefit of treading an independent path is that the country can solve its domestic issues on its own terms through the court of justice, tailored international trade and direct democracy, he contended. However, the EU decides the rules of the game on various matters like technical and institutional standards, to which Switzerland partially adheres and thus has no say in their decision-making.

Switzerland is an active member of the Council of Europe -- an international organization distinct from the 28-nation EU devoted to upholding human rights, democracy, the rule of law in Europe and promoting European culture -- and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. 

Swiss Ambassador to Korea Linus von Castelmur (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald) Swiss Ambassador to Korea Linus von Castelmur (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)

The country of 8 million people is also a constructive partner of the EU in developing efficient and environment-friendly transport policies, and supports democratic and market-oriented reforms in former communist countries. It is an associated member of the Schengen Area: a zone comprising 26 European states that have abolished passport and border control at their mutual borders to encourage unrestricted travel.

“Switzerland is fully integrated into the EU economically but politically independent,” he said, adding the country has a dense network of over 100 bilateral arrangements with the European supranational organization. “This bilateral approach enables us to adopt policies based on openness and cooperation with our European neighbors, a method favored by our electorate.”

About 55 percent of Swiss exports went to the EU last year, and some 73 percent of Swiss imports came from the EU during the same period. Switzerland is not a member of the European Economic Area, which provides for the free movement of persons, goods, services and capital within the European Single Market as well as the freedom to choose residence in any country within the area.

Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein form the European Free Trade Association, which has an FTA with Korea that entered into force in 2006. Switzerland mainly exports watches, pharmaceutical products and machines to Korea, and Korea exports automobiles, machines and plastics. Pointing to the 100 Swiss firms in Korea, he advised more Korean enterprises to open branches and offices in Switzerland.

Although the free trade deal increased trade between the two sides, there is significant room for expanding the two-way commerce by renegotiating the accord, the ambassador said.

“Our feeling is that we should upgrade our deal between Korea and EFTA countries for more liberal trade and investment that would expand mutual benefits and opportunities,” according to von Castelmur. “The EU-Korea FTA or Korea-US FTA could be good models to follow, as they have enhanced standards on environment, labor protection and intellectual property rights, as well as other services.”

By Joel Lee (