Should Brussels be like Berne?

Why Switzerland?
March 21, 1997

One of the paradoxes produced by the end of the cold war has been the dissolution of ideological certainties throughout Europe. The phenomenon is clearly seen in Britain as the political class struggles with post-Maastricht visions (or nightmares) of a new European order, but also, more surprisingly, in Europe's oldest democracy, Switzerland, where the sovereign people reject membership of the EU each time the government puts the issue to a referendum.

At this turning point in our common affairs, the reissue of Jonathan Steinberg's book is timely. First published in 1976, the second edition has been substantially revised and brought up to date. Why Switzerland? attempts to explain the significance of Switzerland's evolution from obscure origins in the 13th century to the myriad anxieties of the 1990s. Steinberg is concerned to demonstrate that Switzerland is more than a Willensnation, that is, a political entity held together merely by self-conscious decision. Examining the republic's historical continuities, he argues that Switzerland possesses an organic unity as intangibly pervasive as that of any other European nation more obviously unified by a dominant language and culture.

Despite the fact that Switzerland's borders were only settled in 1815 and its constituent parts retain a fierce tradition of decentralised democracy, the case is plausible, although there is something undeniably attractive in the idea of independent cantons and city-states joining together as a "nation" for mutual support and political expediency rather than as a result of some ill-defined biological myth. Indeed, the creation of modern Switzerland, which reached its democratic maturity in 1848, and the constitutional revision of 1874, can be seen as a powerful corrective to the brasher, more irrational forms of nationalism that emerged elsewhere in 19th-century Europe.

Steinberg tells a fascinating story with commendable lucidity, and his revisions have led to a better balance between empathy and critical distance than was found in the earlier volume. In particular, the reworking of the passages on Switzerland's role in the second world war gives a more accurate and less flattering picture of the country's accommodation with the Axis powers.

A new chapter on religion has been added to those on history, politics, linguistic diversity and economics. Though knowledge of religious rivalries is necessary to understand the intricate fabric of Swiss society, the space given to the subject appears excessive in view of the curious lack of any systematic discussion of culture: the book's principal weakness. The chapter devoted to current problems of "identity" badly requires an analysis of the writers and artists who have consistently challenged Swiss complacency over the past 40 years by giving imaginative expression to both moral and sociopolitical uncertainties.

On the other hand, Steinberg correctly pinpoints the Swiss army's diminishing prestige in recent years as the most startling symptom of crisis in the body politic. The fundamental questioning of this bastion of Swiss nationhood has been compounded by numerous political scandals of which the most debilitating was the discovery in 1989 of a mass of secret files held on tens of thousands of citizens. Such events have done much to undermine Swiss self-confidence at a time when the country is facing the greatest threat to its cohesion since Napoleon's ill-fated attempt to centralise its ancient structures.

Nevertheless, despite these dismal phenomena, Steinberg stresses the basic sturdiness of Swiss institutions and the Swiss genius for adapting to changed circumstances - if only at the last gasp. Steinberg's bald assertion that "the existing model of the European Union has failed" may be an exaggeration, but to those striving to reform European institutions his book offers good grounds for considering Switzerland's example as a productive way forward. A democratisation of Brussels's centralising bureaucracy along Helvetian lines, indeed, might just tempt the stubborn Swiss to subordinate their unique if endangered identity to a wider, bolder enterprise.

Michael Butler is professor of modern German literature, University of Birmingham.

Why Switzerland?

Author - Jonathan Steinberg
ISBN - 0 521 48170 8 and 48453 7
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00 and £14.95
Pages - 300

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