by Maciej Kmita

The noble idea of United Europe was born in pain, and its consistent development and integration of successive members of the great European family required titanic effort. Learning the unity in diversity is by far the most difficult lesson for Europeans, which unfortunately we were unable to figure out, what the outbreak of the most powerful crisis in the history of the community – the refugee crisis, clearly showed us . Faced with these tragic challenges, we paid a high price both for carefully fueled xenophobia and the false sense of openness, which turned out to be far-reaching recklessness. Meanwhile, next to us, in Switzerland, we can observe the relative canon of peaceful coexistence of many cultures and differences. How did they build their multicultural society? What can we learn from them?

For many years Switzerland has been a cultural mosaic. The first large wave of immigration was triggered by economic booms in the 1960s and 1970s. It was when the Swiss faced the mass invasions of Italians, Portuguese and Spaniards. In the following years the Balkan and North African arrivals came to this country. The social structure of Switzerland was subjected to very gradual evolution, which we can distinguish as the main determinant of that situation. Over forty years (1960 to 2000), the proportion of people speaking in languages other than the Swiss, the official languages has increased more than six times. In recent years, a large influx of Islamic followers has also been observed. In spite of this complexity, Switzerland is not deeply conflicted and appears to us as a peculiar refuge of normality in an increasingly xenophobic Europe.

The key is the Swiss Constitution, which not only defined the system of the state very clearly, but also emphasized all overriding values. In the Basic Law of Switzerland there are many references to respect for separateness, primarily religious and linguistic. Particular attention is paid to the freedom of speaking native language. In Switzerland there are independent territorial units – culturally and ethnically diverse cantons. Federalism must be unequivocally assessed as a system of state organization that is beneficial to multicultural societies. Decisions at the low level of democracy lead to minimize the risk of conflict and to promote respect for interregional differences. At the same time a high level of direct democracy (a large number of referendums, popular initiative) raises a justified question whether the majority voting allows to save the rights of minorities.

The Swiss constitution contains provisions that guarantee independence and a number of rights for “traditional minorities” (mainly those that came to Switzerland in the 20th century). For example part of article 70, which says that “The Federation supports the activities of the cantons of Rodent and Tessin to preserve and support the Russo-language and Italian language.” The “new”, so non-Christian minorities in particular, draw attention to discrimination in the area of the ability to shape one’s own independence.

But as it turns out, the history of recent years shows that society is mature enough to vote in favour of minority rights. The Swiss have accepted a proposal to facilitate the naturalization of immigrants from the third generation in spite of protests from the conservative SVP. One year earlier they rejected the SVP’s idea of automatic deportation of criminals who are not Swiss nationals. It is true that in the past years there has been one referendum strongly discriminating against non-Swiss workers, but later it has been significantly lessened.

It is extremely important to note that the Swiss are rather severely demanding to respect “Swiss” values. This applies both to Muslims (in some cantons there is a strict prohibition of wearing burqa) but also for Catholic who would like to release their children from school for a week to attend traditional Masses organized after the first holy communion (in Switzerland the presence of children in school Is almost a “holy” thing).

How does Switzerland behave in the face of the refugee crisis? First of all, it does not refrain from help and voluntarily announced its willingness to accept newcomers within the European Relocation Program. Paradoxically, this country is not, however, the first choice for the current wave of refugees. This is due to many reasons. Among other things, the benefits are mainly granted as loans to pay after finding a job and the Swiss authorities also use the confiscation of property valued at over one thousand francs.

The Swiss system is incomparable to any other in Europe. It is difficult to conclusively state how solutions so deep in their federalism would affect other modern European state systems. Explicit constitutional references to freedom and respect for minority rights are undoubtedly important, but more as a solid foundation for a slow, consistent building of multicultural society. It seems that the only direct indication that we could draw from a Swiss case in the face of present migration and refugee challenges is the preservation of openness and generosity while enforcing compliance with the rules of society. This will allow us to protect ourselves against both xenophobia and false political correctness. Everything else what Switzerland has achieved through multicultural integration, should be a model for Europeans in the daily, tedious task of saving the most important European value: peace.

07 October 2017
This text was published in Bullseye issue 69