A British-American bluestocking living in the UK writes about politics, pop culture, and emerging new paradigms as they unfold on both sides of the Atlantic. (New content.)

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Why the Swiss Should Form Their Own Union (And I'll Be First in Line)

Zurich, Switzerland
Did you know there is one country that has refused to join the EU and has managed to do so with with a modicum of grace? Did you know it is the same country that remained neutral during the Great Wars? And for three centuries before that? I am referring to that small quiet  industrious gem of the Alps...Switzerland.

After all my moaning about the travesty that the European Union has inflicted upon the beloved island of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the feisty Republic of Ireland that stood up to the EU (for awhile anyway)...a solution is at hand. While dining with some Swiss nationals in a warm and cozy lodge atop a mountain with the lights of the Rhine Valley twinkling in the distance, the answer came. It came not from an MGM Burt Lancaster voice-out-of-the-sky, but from a very practical, solid Swiss man who had grown up in the area.

"How have the Swiss managed to stay out of the European Union?" I asked. "Do you think you will be forced to join it eventually?"  I thought of the strong tentacles of the EU and its bully tactics.

"Well, " he said, " We have always been a neutral country. And what I feel is this..."  He leaned conspiratorially across the table. "Why can't we get the other European countries to join us, instead? We have got it right and we are doing very well. The natural solution to me  is...a Swiss Union!" 

We all laughed at the absurdity of that possibility in lieu of the odds. But is it?  What would the Swiss be able to teach all of us? A great deal it seems.

My copy of "Heidi"
I admit that my  first points of reference to Switzerland stemmed from childhood. There was my dog-eared copy of "Heidi" by Johanna Spyri, a Swiss author who is now considered a national treasure. I loved my "Heidi" book. Along with that was another book, "The Happy Hollisters and the Swiss Echo Mystery."  Not exactly Pulitzer Prize material but these little books that talked of the beauty of this country high in the mountains intrigued me to no end. I learned that Switzerland was a beautiful country surrounded by gorgeous mountains possibly (hopefully) made of white chocolate. Later on, as a teenager,  I learned that the Swiss were famous for banking and watches and chocolate (there it is again) and for remaining neutral throughout most contemporary European conflicts. They had a policy of "isolationism" though until recently, that was probably because of the difficulties it was to actually reach it in the first place. They have been criticized for "staying apart" from the fray. Upon seeing this country at work, I think they chose to do the right thing.

After living in Great Britain for almost a decade and dealing with the monster bureaucracy and "can't be bothered" attitudes, I was not prepared for what I saw in Switzerland. First of all, it was amazingly efficient. There were no queues at SwissAir to check-in your baggage and when you went to the front desk, you were greeted with polite smiles and a very helpful attendant. Upon arrival at Zurich Airport, the atmosphere was quiet and sedate, not at all like the cacophony of noise and chaos that is present at Heathrow or DeGaulle (or Houston for that matter.) 

The air was clean and crisp, even in Zurich which is the largest populated city in Switzerland. We arrived there on a weekday, in the center of the city and there was hardly any traffic (thanks to great public transport.) The people were enjoying leisurely walks in the lovely autumnal afternoon. Shops were doing a brisk business, but there was a sense of calm and once again efficiency, it was as if the whole country was run on time, but without urgency. Zurich felt,  to me,  like the beautiful woman who does not have to hurry to the party because she knows she is the guest of honour and the party cannot start without her anyway. Not that she would dare be late. It wouldn't be polite. And if there is anything that I saw in the Swiss that was quite sterling was how polite they were. After having been jostled in the high streets in Great Britain, dropping packages (that no one bothered to help me pick up), being hit by revolving glass doors as someone else attempted to squeeze me out and almost being run over by cars in crosswalks...being in Switzerland felt a bit surreal. Strangers spoke to you, they smiled, they held doors open for you, even though I could not speak German, they attempted conversation with me in whatever English they could muster. I was very impressed and touched. Zurich is a multi-cultural city, but there is this sense of co-existence among everyone that is visible and palpable. I kept wondering, "Why are the Swiss so different from other European countries I have visited?"  Aside from the fact that they have had the good sense to steer clear of the EU...they seemed absolutely content...at peace...happy.

Why is this? Why is it that the Swiss have "got it right" and the rest of the European Union is tanking spiritually, emotionally and financially?  The Swiss are a "direct democracy". That is, no law is passed in Switzerland without the people voting and having their say. Even America does not have that. While the bullies in Brussels continue their march toward self-immolation passing law after law with no one having any vote, the Swiss respect their citizens enough to give them the power to decide their own destiny. They voted against joining the EU and this move was respected. There is however, increasing pressure on them to "go over to the dark (EU) side" through ever-increasing  restrictive trade laws. 

Sovereign Proud Swiss Cow
Switzerland is one of the wealthiest nations in the world. It encourages free trade and commerce. It is a world banking center. It's unemployment rate is 2.9 percent.  Driving through even the small towns, you could see "industry" in the form of  small shops, greengrocers, farmers tending flocks or harvesting apples orchards. We went to a farmer's market in the seaside town of Arbon where the stalls were filled with exquisite autumn arrangements (dried leaves and acorns) and piping hot food and produce. And smiles. Always smiles... even for strange Americans like me. When you say "Swiss made" it still means "quality", not "afterthought".  While they are not a jovial, outgoing people...they still are welcoming and kind. After all, they have a very high quality of life both in the cities and in the beautiful countryside. Healthcare in the country is probably the best of any in Europe. Employees are given perks. Travelling across the countryside, I saw how all the small towns and villages were linked with a superb railway and bus system that runs like well-oiled clockwork. You can live anywhere in Switzerland and get to anywhere else without a car and do so in good time. Earth changes? Surrounded by mountains and high up in the heavens, it may well not be affected at all. The Swiss might get ruffled for a bit, but then they would go about figuring out what to do....and come up with something....well....efficient of course.  Another impressive item about Switzerland is how clean and neat everything is. You rarely saw a house with crumbling paint. The yards were trimmed neatly to an inch of their lives. Even the pastures along the highways and byways seemed newly mown. It was as if God had taken a riding lawnmower and just made sure that everything was beautiful and postcard perfection simply because She has decided to live in Switzerland, too. Even the cows seemed content (I swear I saw them with dustpans picking up after themselves, too.)  The tax breaks for corporations and for individuals is a great incentive. This brings business to Switzerland and helps it to thrive. (What a novel idea, eh? Is anyone in the UK or USA interested in such a bold scheme?) Most of the Swiss are well-educated and literate. They seem to know what is going on outside Switzerland, though most of the rest of the world doesn't really take the time to know about them. They may actually prefer to be under the radar. They set high standards on their immigration policies. A few years ago, the Swiss started an uproar when they proposed the immediate deportation of anyone who had committed a serious crime right after they finished serving their sentence. Switzerland has low crime, but crime has been increasing with the new gates that have been opened to EU immigrants. The Swiss want to stop the influx of criminals into their country and disturbing the peace they have fostered for centuries. They were branded "xenophobic" for speaking out. Switzerland has tough immigration laws. You have to live there for 12 years and pay taxes and have absolutely no criminal record to become a citizen. Xenophobic? Or just being careful? I have seen the ramifications of unchecked immigration to the UK. While I am for helping the "poor and huddled masses yearning to be free" (with apologies to Emma Lazurus) I am against the rampant criminal element that has been introduced because the UK can no longer provide a steady infrastructure for everyone who has beaten down the doors to live here not because they are refugees (which I believe we should support) but because their own countries have abandoned them to poverty. When does political corrrectness become sheer madness?  You can complain about the country you live in (as I do) but you do not incite violence, commit crimes or take money out of the coffers of the government to live on while you openly denigrate and vilify the country that is housing and feeding you with taxpayer's money.  That is the ultimate hypocrisy. If you come to Great Britain as an immigrant, then be prepared to do something to give back to the country that has opened its doors to you. Standing on a soapbox inciting hatred isn't one of the options, in my book. Oh, well, called me old-fashioned.

I am sure that Switzerland has its share of problems. Most countries do. But what I saw was a country that had been spared from the dictatorial and draconian measures that the European Union has handed down to its member countries. What I saw was a nation that stood up for democracy in a way that even the United States has failed to do (think of the bullying around healthcare). It is a country that has a lot to teach the world about what works and what doesn't. Basically, you cannot bully the Swiss. They may be polite, but they are not pushovers.

Why aren't we listening and learning from the Swiss?  And more than that, where do I sign up to be a member of the "Swiss Union"? The efficient and polite queue forms to the rear. No pushing, now. The Swiss don't like pushing.

Farmer's Market Stall in Arbon on Lake Konstanz