Switzerland has resisted the forces of centralization that seem to be sweeping Europe. Last December 6, in a referendum that was widely considered the country’s most important since it established its confederation in 1848, Swiss voters rejected a plan to help form a 19-nation European Economic Area in which people, goods, capital, and services would have moved freely as of January 1, 1993. The referendum elicited the highest voter turnout (78 percent) since the 1947 plebiscite on adopting a social security system, thus delivering a resounding “no” to the idea of European union in spite of its consistent endorsement by the multiparty Swiss government. Perhaps there is hope that attachment to the European Community is still a long wav off for this mountain nation of approximately 6 million (if not completely out of the question, as the “E.G. NEVER” graffiti on bridges outside its capital, Bern, would suggest).

Most Swiss politicians were—and still are—enthusiastic about participating with the 12 members of the EC and the other six members of the European Free Trade Association (Austria, Sweden, England, Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein) in the tariff-free trading zone. But approval of the EEA plan by the Swiss was an uphill battle from the start: despite the numerous concessions granted Switzerland in the negotiations that led to the signing of an EEA accord by EFTA members last April, anti-EC sentiment in the country remained strong. Switzerland’s success in protecting its banking secrecy laws, its generous subsidies for farmers, and its limitations on the number of trucks that cross its Alpine roads was apparently small comfort for the Swiss people, who fear the effects of open borders and centralization. And it was the Swiss people who, under a constitutional provision that requires popular ratification of all laws and accords affecting the constitution, ultimately had the last word. Politicians in Switzerland had viewed participation in the EEA as a stepping stone to membership in the EC (for which they officially applied last spring). Yet they should have seen the low voter turnout (37 percent) in last May’s referendum to approve their country’s application for membership in the World Bank and the IMF as a sign that Swiss interest in joining the various international organizations is less than overwhelming—and that Swiss opposition to the EEA plan (not to mention EC membership) would be stiff.

But the EEA referendum did more than highlight popular opposition to the Swiss government’s steps toward European union: it pointed up some interesting (and potentially grid-locking) divisions within the Swiss populace itself. While labor, industry, bankers, and the intelligentsia backed the government in its aggressive campaign on behalf of the EEA accord, farmers and small businessmen vehemently opposed the plan. The large corporations and less heavily subsidized farmers of the EC would present harsh competition to the 99 percent of Swiss plants that have fewer than 100 employees and to the Swiss livestock and dairy farmers whose products are subsidized to the tune of over $1 billion per year.

But deeper than the divisions between economic sectors is the apparent split between the different cultures that make up the Swiss confederation. For while the popular vote on the EEA scheme was close and somewhat ambiguous, with 50.3 percent against and 49.7 percent for, the cantonal vote (referendum rules require a majority of the country’s 23 cantons to approve a measure for it to pass) sent a clearer message, with 16 (generally German-speaking) cantons voting “no,” 7 (generally French-speaking) cantons “yes.” Why the split among Switzerland’s two major language groups? While the French-speaking minority favors closer ties with France and the rest of Europe, the German- speaking cantons are concerned that open borders may have destabilizing consequences, as in Germany in recent months, hi effect, the immigration issue was perhaps the opposition’s most effective card. Christoph Blocher, a German-speaking millionaire industrialist who is also a legislator for the conservative Swiss People’s Party, used this card in leading the “no” campaign. “Europe has 15 million unemployed,” he argued, “The French, the Portuguese, the Italians arc going to work here. Salaries will go down, the quality of our products will fall, unemployment will rise.”

As important as the immigration issue in determining the results of the referendum was a concern of a more political nature or, as René Felber, president of Switzerland’s seven-member Federal Council, termed it, a “fear of big nations.” The Swiss, who have a proud history of rejecting closer international links (as when they voted three to one against joining the United Nations in 1986), carefully guard both their national sovereignty and their particular form of grass-roots democracy in which the federal government has little power and citizens have the right to vote (after petitioning the government with 50,000 signatures) on any issue. This peculiar political system was directly threatened by the EFTA accord, which gives the EC final say on all laws, even those that affect EFTA members. The Swiss were worried that, in signing on through the accord to the EC’s so-called “Acquis Communautaire” (some 40,000 pages of regulations), they would sec a transfer of their decision-making powers to Brussels. Such a cession of sovereignty would mean (posit Michel Legris and Jean-Marc Gonin in a 1989 article for L’Express) that 16 of the 76 federal referenda held in Switzerland from 1977 to 1985 would have fallen under the authority of the EC’s ruling body, the European Commission. The Swiss, in short, were not ready to stomach such a gross usurpation of their powers.

Their caution parallels the growing skepticism of many Europeans toward union. The Swiss vote may have only slowed participation of the other EFTA members in the new and expanded common market, but it had a significant psychological effect on the rest of Europe. Following on the heels of the Danish rejection and the narrow French ratification of the Maastricht treaty last year, the Swiss “no” underlined the uncertainty of the EC’s future.

Yet pro-EC politicians, even in Switzerland, continue to press on. Reaction among members of the Swiss government to the referendum comprised a mixture of regret, reproof, and dogged persistence in the face of defeat. Rene Felber, who expressed his disappointment by calling the rupture between the federal authorities and the people “grave,” went on to argue for continued overtures on the part of Switzerland toward the EC: “It is of course necessary, and it will not be easy, to restore the confidence that all the countries of Europe accorded our country on the path to the interdependent construction of the Europe of tomorrow.” Swiss politicians and business leaders had contended that their country could not afford to remain outside a unifying Europe, and they remained hopeful up until the day of the election that voters would agree. Back in 1991, Ursus Jaeggi, director of government affairs at Du Pont Europe in Geneva, was arguing that the Swiss would eventually ratify-the EEA pact. His confidence—ironically—was based on a belief that “the man in the street has more insight than some of our political leaders.” Perhaps he does.