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Point of view: European elections 2024: why a Swiss citizen would also like to vote

Apr 24, 2024 / Kaspar Schuler, CIPRA International
Switzerland’s referendum-based democracy has pitfalls of its own when it comes to environmental and climate policy. There needs to be an overarching corrective, such as neighbouring countries have in their constitutional courts and through the legal institutions of the EU, says Kaspar Schuler – as a Swiss citizen and Executive Director of CIPRA International.
Image caption:
Kaspar Schuler is Swiss citizen and managing director of CIPRA International. (c) Julian Konrad

As a Swiss citizen, should I comment on the European parliamentary elections? After all, I live in the best of all democracies, as is often suggested to me. Every new law passed in parliament here can be challenged by 50,000 certified signatures in a referendum. So, let’s take a closer look: by 2022, 120 out of 207 Swiss referendums had been accepted and 87 rejected. Among so many negations of previous parliamentary work were also sensible concerns. Yet an effective climate protection law that also contained certain uncomfortable measures was rejected in 2021, with 52% of votes against: only a totally watered-down version was adopted. Subsidies are now to provide a voluntary way out of the climate crisis.

All of this shows that we, too, can be manipulated; we prefer to stick with the majority and are rarely progressive. In one central aspect, however, you in the European Union are far ahead of us: member states that are slipping into autocracy are admonished and, if necessary, democratically called to account. Switzerland, on the other hand, still has no constitutional court, leaving the door open to parliamentary arbitrariness. This explains why, at the end of 2023, parliament was able to pass a new Electricity Act to comprehensively deregulate nature conservation, water protection and spatial planning almost unchallenged. This new eco-logic means that renewable electricity production is largely prioritised over nature and landscape conservation. In the absence of a constitutional court, this serious reorientation cannot be judicially reviewed. The only route left to a few staunch nature lovers is to hold a referendum. But does it make sense to let the population make the final decision on such a challenging issue by voting simply YES or NO? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to have a legally adroit balancing of concerns?

Fortunately, another court exists: the European Court of Human Rights, which is not associated with the EU, but is even more closely linked to the European spirit of unity between nations. It recently ruled in favour of climate justice. Thanks to this, more than two and a half thousand unbending Swiss climate activists have made their voices heard with a plea in favour of more climate protection. Switzerland has more to do for its future survival. The upright stance of these women and their appeal to an overarching legal authority now strengthens us all, in Switzerland and beyond. Climate protection is a human right. This seems so groundbreaking to me that we should also approach the preservation of biodiversity – and thus our own livelihoods – in the spirit of human rights. One that goes beyond national vanity, nationalistic ruthlessness and indeed the summits of the Alps. After all, the most peaceable of all international agreements that I know of also breathes this spirit of cooperation: the Alpine Convention.

As you can see, the connecting parts of Europe are very close to my heart. They form our common home, with everything that thrives and teems within it. And because, as a Swiss citizen, I am still able to meet with you and further the protection of the Alps, but cannot participate politically in Europe, here is my plea: go out and vote! Vote with the will to live together in a post-nationalist democracy that is both argumentative and conciliatory.

And – I almost forgot: should we in Switzerland one day manage to join forces with you, instead of continuing to fight amongst ourselves in referendums, please welcome us – even with a hearty laugh.