Before we vote Brexit I thought I’d pop over to Switzerland — courtesy of Die Weltwoche, the nearest local equivalent to The Spectator — to see how life will be once we escape the EU. Can confirm: it’s going to be great. We’ll be richer, freer and the views are fantastic: lakes and mountains so stupidly gorgeous that each time you look at them you think: ‘This is ridiculous. Nowhere could possibly be this ludicrously pretty.’ Then you go under a tunnel to the next valley where it’s just as lovely. It’s like gorging on a giant bar of hazelnut Lindt.
And — in their understated Swiss way — they love us British. Partly it’s because we created their tourist industry, first by sending over the Shelleys, Byron and various Romantic painters to discover ‘the sublime’ and create Gothic horror, then by inventing winter sports and — thanks to Thomas Cook — devising the Swiss-based package tour.
Partly it’s because we have so much in common. Robert Conquest once said that there are only two European democracies — Switzerland and Britain. Which may be why we both feel so unsuited to membership of the anti-democratic EU. This, certainly, is the view of elder statesman Christoph Blocher, the Swiss former MP largely credited with having kept Switzerland out of the EU. When we met at the Swiss federal parliament in the (almost unfeasibly pleasant) capital Berne he enumerated our similarities.
‘One, England has always had a very big sense of sovereignty — “we are Britain and we are doing this”. Two, freedom is very important to England. You have an older tradition than countries like Germany which didn’t exist before 1871 and has only been a democracy since 1945. And three, you are an island and Switzerland is an island too. We are an island without a sea.’
Free-market, anti-immigration, anti-EU, Blocher has dragged Switzerland’s famously dull political system inexorably right. Few Swiss would admit how much they admire him in public — in the rural heartlands where his SVP has its power base, maybe, but definitely not in the liberal-left cities — like Nigel Farage, he is very much a Marmite figure.
‘There are only two groups — those who hate me and those who think I’m a hero. It doesn’t bother me. When you have a clear position it must be so,’ says Blocher, 75, a self-made billionaire whose personal hero is Winston Churchill. Though he lives in style in a lakeside mansion, his manner is warm and down-to-earth.
His problem with the EU, he explains, is that its values are antithetical to the ‘three pillars’ that give Switzerland its comparative advantage — direct democracy, neutrality, and federalism. ‘The European Union is a bad construction. Twenty-eight states under the same rules? That cannot function. Not when there are countries like Italy which have another sense of the rules than we do. We like the Italians. But that is no reason for behaving like the Italians.’
In 1992, he took on almost all of the Swiss political establishment — the federal and canton governments, the big economic forums, the unions — by campaigning to keep Switzerland out of the European Economic Area.
Experts issued dire warnings on the consequences of rejecting this fantastic deal. One politician, anticipating Project Fear, said that if Switzerland didn’t seize the opportunity now — it was in the throes of a recession at the time — then in five years it would be begging to join ‘on its knees’.
But the people voted against all the same (‘The Swiss don’t like being told there’s no alternative’) and since then Switzerland has prospered, as it did from day one. ‘The Monday after the Sunday, the Bourse rose,’ recalls with Blocher with modest satisfaction.
One thing we’re often told by experts of various hues is that the Swiss option wouldn’t be open to Britain post-Brexit. ‘No,’ agrees Blocher. ‘You’d get a much better deal.’
He doesn’t buy into the idea that in a fit of pique the EU would punish Britain with swingeing tariffs, because as a businessman he understands that that’s not how contracts work. They are based on mutual benefit.
This is why he is sceptical of an unhappy outcome to the current clash between Switzerland and the EU. One quarter of Switzerland’s population are now immigrants. The Swiss have a much better record than most of absorbing them peacefully. (Incomers are spread out, rather than concentrated in urban ghettos, and strongly encouraged to learn the language and integrate as quickly as possible) Even so, the Swiss have had enough, which is why in a 2014 referendum they voted for limiting immigration through quotas.
The European Commission grumbles that this ‘goes against the principle of free movement of people’. In practice, however, Blocher doubts this will affect Switzerland’s trade agreement with the EU — essentially because business is business. ‘I’m sure they will not end these contracts because they’re good for both sides, though more so for the EU.’ He notes for example that the Swiss are allowing EU members to use their Gotthard Tunnel at about one third of the market rate for the toll. Why would the EU wish to end deals which are manifestly to its advantage?
Blocher is a canny man. He made his fortune in chemicals and went into politics, in the Roman manner, to serve his country, rather than for the money. And you do get the impression that he has a rather better idea how to run a successful enterprise than anyone in the European Commission — the former sociology lecturer from Sweden, say, currently in charge of trade. Take China: unlike the EU, Blocher has been doing business with it since 1980, when he opened the first of 117 factories there.
‘I think if you leave the EU it will be very good for you,’ he predicts. Well, if it makes us more like the Swiss, I’m game.
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