Pity the rich Swiss - they have to accept their own normality

Share
Related Topics
Berne - Panic in paradise? Well, not quite. But a visit to Switzerland in early 1998 is a distinctly disconcerting experience. Now the conservative Swiss are not ones to get carried away. But in its sedate fashion the place is in ferment. It's not that BSE has broken out on the scented Alpine pastures, or that poverty beckons for Europe's richest country, still as ruinously expensive as ever. Scratch a little deeper though, and you are amazed. As never before perhaps in the 150 years of the modern state, the assumptions on which Switzerland is based are under challenge. Up in the mountains, the glaciers are retreating in the face of global warming. Down in the plains and valleys, where Switzerland meets the outside world, it is frozen history that is melting. And not before time.

Switzerland is a prisoner of its myth. For the Swiss, theirs has been the land apart, which thanks to its valour, industry and good sense had avoided the traumas that engulfed the rest of Europe. It has seen itself as the purest distillation of independence and neutrality, underpinned by an Athenian system of direct democracy envied by the rest of us. And envy it we did. Depression, world wars, cold wars, the birth of a new Europe - come what may, Switzerland sailed serenely onward, rich and contented. No longer. From both the past and the present, the Swiss myth is under siege.

The catalyst of course has been the Nazi-gold controversy. The end of the Cold War, had buried allegations of Swiss collaboration with the Nazis under the greater need to contain the Russians. Periodically, doubts would crop up, even in Switzerland; but basically the myth survived: heroism, not expediency, saved the Swiss from the Third Reich.

Well, Switzerland now learns, not quite. The revelations of dormant accounts, fresh details of how the country was Hitler's financial conduit to the rest of the world and how it turned many Jews away - all erode the way the country regards itself. Not unnaturally, the Swiss are searching around for culprits. Some blame jealous foreigners for exaggerating modest sins into huge iniquities, others blame the banks for their obsession with secrecy and their heartless treatment of Holocaust survivors seeking money hidden by murdered relatives. And of course others blame the Jews. But gradually, one senses, reality is dawning. The country was not an active collaborator of Nazism; indeed it behaved better than either France or Austria, and its role may be compared to that of Sweden. But neither was it perfect.

And the extent of that imperfection will be revealed. The Swiss are nothing if not meticulous. Three separate investigations are underway into the country's behaviour. A first detailed report in April will deal with the gold dealings; the word is that it will be "very critical." Others will follow on the conduct of Swiss insurance companies, trading in looted art, and more besides. But the broad conclusion is already clear. Entirely surrounded by Axis powers and dependent on outside raw materials, Switzerland did what it had to do - what most others would have done: it compromised.

Now turn history forward half a century. Once more Switzerland is surrounded. This time the encircler takes the more benign shape of the European Union, but again the limits of "independence" are exposed. The Swiss Government is now committed to joining the EU. As Flavio Cotti, who currently holds the rotating presidency of the federation points out, it has scant choice in the matter: "A country remaining outside has to pay the price of isolation." Berne and the EU are presently negotiating a bilateral agreement, which amounts to a pre-accession treaty and which might well founder on a transport dispute. But the sense of the process is clear. Switzerland is in a corner. As in 1939, it must get the best deal it can.

Conceivably, clinging to an imagined independence, the country may yet turn its back on the EU. But even if it does, the new Europe has already undermined that other holy canon of neutrality. Strip away the myth, and you realise neutrality was an instrument to keep Switzerland out of wars between overwhelmingly more powerful neighbours. But today, war between Germany and France is inconceivable. Swiss neutrality in its old fashioned sense is an irrelevance; in the Cold War the country was taken for granted as part of the West. Now a more humdrum neutrality beckons, like that of Sweden, Austria, or Ireland.

But such a realisation is not a cause for joy. The embrace of Europe is reluctant, born not of idealism but necessity. Already Switzerland must shape its economic laws with one eye on the EU. Full membership implies, perforce, greater centralisation and a weakening of the cherished system of referenda and town hall decision-making. If the Euro succeeds, another symbol of nationhood, the Swiss franc, is also doomed. And even Switzerland's legendary 500,000-strong citizens militia, each with a rifle under the bed, trained to blow up the mountain passes to save the motherland at the first trump of an Alpine horn, may be no more. Save the motherland from whom ? There are now proposals for a 10,000 man professional standing army. In this moment of self-questioning, nothing is sacred.

Is this the end of "Swiss-ness"? Of course not - no more than the EU has drained the nationhood from France, Britain or Italy. But for once the expression "turning point" is not a cliche. A senior member of one of the commissions says, "I see us in the UN in five or ten years, and then inside the EU." No more splendid isolation, fewer myths, no more Swiss exceptionalism. Just a small, extremely wealthy country at the very heart of Europe. For most of us, such normality would indeed be paradise. For Switzerland, adjustment to it is a trauma.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Housekeeper

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is the holding company of an expa...

Recruitment Genius: Network Engineer

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Setup, configure, troubleshoot,...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales Consultant - Financial Services - OTE £65,000

£15000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Loan Underwriter

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: the SNP’s ‘fundamental problem’, says Corbyn, is that too many people support it

John Rentoul
An investor looks at an electronic board showing stock information at a brokerage house in Shanghai  

China has exposed the fatal flaws in our liberal economic order

Ann Pettifor
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future