“Who should have the last word concerning laws within our country? Swiss citizens and the cantons or international organizations and foreign judges?” asked Roger Köppel of the right-wing People’s Party during a recent heated debate in the Swiss Parliament. “One puts the law of the European Union above our Constitution!” exclaimed a scandalized Hans-Ueli Vogt of the same party.
“Why so much hatred?” responded a left-wing politician. “Five thousand commercial treaties were not submitted to the people for votes,” added a colleague. He argued that a recent Swiss initiative establishing the priority of Swiss law over international law would cause enormous insecurity and call into question Swiss trustworthiness.
The issue was not decided that day in the Parliament. As with most divisive national questions, it will probably be decided by the Swiss citizens and cantons next fall.
The question of whether national law or international law is primary is not just a Swiss dilemma. Nor is the question of submitting the issue to the people of major importance. No, the core of the debate is whether the recognition that today we live in a globalized world can be reconciled with tribal, patriotic emotions.
Are you a globalist or a tribalist? You can’t be both, according to last week’s Swiss debate. In President Trump’s inner circle, for example, being called a globalist is a strong insult. The United States, after all, considers its constitution and federal laws to be above international law, a rather bizarre position considering the important if not dominant position of the U.S. in world affairs.
That Switzerland’s economy is intimately woven into foreign trade is not significant to those who fear foreign interference by non-Swiss judges. The fact that Geneva is considered the Rome of multilateralism has little traction with those who wish to preserve a national identity in spite of a cosmopolitan population.
In the 21st century, new walls are being built to protect sovereign territory at the same time technology has allowed us to live in a borderless world. I have to show no passport to connect with friends and colleagues around the world.
This technological openness has had an emotional backlash around the world. Whether against southern migrants moving north or eastern countries fearful of western interference, emotional reactions are defending national interests against growing internationalism.
There are many examples of this emotional reaction. “The West has always tried to impose itself on Russia,” said a prominent academician at a recent meeting in Moscow. “Your imperialism continues, this time with the expansion of NATO and the European Union. But like with Napoleon and Hitler, this will fail.”
My friend certainly had a point. During my first visit to Moscow years ago, I had been taken to a museum that showed the historic battles that defended Moscow against invasion during World War II. During a different visit to Volgograd, I had been shown a panorama depicting historic resistance to invasion. Russian patriotism was and is crucial to national identity. The pride in being Russian, severely threatened by the end of the Soviet Union, is an important part of Vladimir Putin’s success as is Donald Trump’s campaign to make America Great Again in the face of rising Chinese economic power.
In spite of growing interconnectedness due to technological advances, in spite of increased trade and travel, the desire to belong to some tribe has marked the beginning of the 21st century. Populism is a manifestation of the desire for tribal membership since national identities have been destabilised by globalisation.
To be a citizen of the world is to be a citizen of no place in particular. The Swiss debate is a clear example of renewed efforts to prioritize Swiss identity. Votes against “mass migration” and closer ties to the European Union are other obvious examples.
Can one be a globalist and tribalist at the same time? As with all binary choices, is there no middle ground? Today, binary mathematics, with its excluded middle, is being challenged by quantum physics. There are people with multiple passports who feel affinity towards more than one national identity just as there are people who can sing more than one national anthem. (It may be difficult to choose sides if the two countries play each other in a football match.)
Switzerland has signed many multilateral treaties. Most Swiss national laws conform to international laws. The argument over foreign judges is a false argument because Switzerland is already legally and commercially interconnected to the rest of the world. The emotional appeal of the proposed initiative contradicts objective reality.
The initiative against foreign judges will hopefully be defeated this fall as part of a recognition that a campaign of Switzerland First has no place in the 21st century.