“For EU countries, Switzerland is an interesting laboratory”

Vincent Kaufmann: “There are two sides to mobility – movement and moorings”. © Alain Herzog/EPFL

Vincent Kaufmann: “There are two sides to mobility – movement and moorings”. © Alain Herzog/EPFL

Vincent Kaufmann, an EPFL researcher, has co-authored an essay on Switzerland’s recent referendums on mobility and the free movement of people. These two votes should lead the European Union to rethink certain aspects of its founding documents.

Vincent Kaufmann, a sociologist who specializes in mobility studies, decided to expand his usual focus on urban areas to include Switzerland and the European Union (EU). Kaufmann, who is also the head of EPFL’s Urban Sociology Laboratory, teamed up with Spanish researcher Ander Audikana to write an essay on mobility and the free movement of people in the EU and in Switzerland. The authors’ starting point was the “Stop mass immigration" initiative, which was approved by voters on 9 February 2014.

Their essay provides a Swiss perspective that people concerned about a borderless EU and its unintended consequences might do well to consider. Clive H. Church, researcher at the University of Kent, also draws an interesting parallel between Switzerland and post-Brexit UK in the book’s preface. Vincent Kaufmann tells us why this essay is important.

What gave rise to this essay?

Switzerland has been dealing with mobility-related issues for decades: the introduction of the Erasmus program, truck traffic crossing the Alps, limiting trucks to 40 tons, the AlpTransit initiative, the free movement of people, the modal shift from road to rail, and so on. All these issues have one thing in common: mobility. And yet, they are never analyzed together. On 9 February 2014, the Swiss people voted on two separate questions that, in reality, were both rooted in mobility. On that day, the people approved the “Stop mass immigration” initiative, which called for immigration quotas. They also gave the go-ahead for a fund to upgrade the country’s rail infrastructure. In a way, Swiss people paradoxically voted for “less mobility” and “more mobility” at the same time. Since then, there has been plenty of partisan rhetoric but very little sociological analysis of what really happened in that vote. Seeing this, Ander Audikana and I wanted to show how important it is to look at all these mobility issues together, in Switzerland but also in the EU, in order to get a better idea of what the consequences will be.

What are your main conclusions?

In the first part of our essay, we look at the EU’s founding documents. It’s clear that the free movement of people – much more than economic interests – was at the core of the European project. These documents show that mobility was considered the only way of unifying the member states and erasing the differences in their political and welfare systems. The Erasmus program, for example, clearly states this goal in its founding texts. But there are two sides to mobility: movement and “moorings”. Moorings refer to the connections a person makes once they have moved to a new place: building meaningful social relationships, absorbing the culture, learning the language, making use of public spaces, coming to identify with the place and building an emotional bond with it etc. Unfortunately, EU policies largely overlook this, and instead demand that people move from place to place while failing to assess the consequences of widespread geographical mobility on regional development, the ability of diverse groups of people to live alongside each other, and wage dumping. These problems are left to the individual member countries, and we think this is a major shortcoming.

How does this shortcoming affect Switzerland?

In theory, an EU company could win a contract to plant trees in a small Swiss town, and no local landscaping companies would be able to compete on price. This is a good example of mobility without moorings: the cross-border deal is encouraged without first looking at whether this scenario is fair. While people consider these types of situations totally unfair, the EU has created a legal apparatus that is simply oblivious to this. It’s this type of mechanism that Europeans are now rallying against, as we see in the rise in populism. The mobility demanded by the EU creates as many problems as it solves.

You interviewed the leaders of the six main political parties in Switzerland about this issue. Yet they are cited anonymously in your essay. Why did you do this?

We wanted to get away from partisan politics and take an anthropological approach. Rereading these interviews, we saw that mobility-related questions did not fit neatly into the left-right paradigm. We see, for example, very liberal views on both sides: the idea that the world will be a better place the more people move around. At the same time, there’s a need for the state to be more assertive and get a better grip on the flow of money, people and goods. We think that where these two positions meet is where we can find compromises and solutions. In Switzerland, local identity is important and is currently seen as being under threat. The people want the government to do something about this.

Is this what the EU could learn from the Swiss experience when it comes to rethinking mobility and the elimination of borders?

Switzerland is seeking a better balance between mobility and moorings. The fact that the EU is so dogmatic about being borderless is a problem for Switzerland, since this country doesn’t work that way. The Swiss don't subscribe to dogmas – they reach compromises through discussion and direct democracy. For EU countries, Switzerland is an interesting laboratory. Debates that do not happen elsewhere take place here. We feel that the way in which the Swiss achieve compromises on questions of mobility and the free movement of people could help the EU overcome some of the hurdles it faces. Our analysis shows, for example, that the EU should not have focused so much on a policy of mobility in its founding documents but rather on a policy of accessibility: access to services, to infrastructure and to other countries. The EU’s overriding goal should not be to make sure that people move from here to there at all costs. It should be to guarantee a certain level of fairness when people, goods, and services move across borders. Returning to the example of EU companies competing in Switzerland: in order to gain access to the Swiss market, these companies should apply Swiss prices.

In your essay, you foresee a return to medieval, walled-in cities in Europe. Is the situation that dire?

The current border situation will require a strong political response by the EU. Failing that, we believe there’s a good chance that walls, watchtowers and barbed wire could indeed pop up all over Europe, transforming the continent into a gated community.

  • Vincent Kaufmann, Ander Audikana, Mobilité et Libre circulation en Europe: un regard suisse, Fondation Jean Monnet, Economica - Les Cahiers rouges, Paris, 2017.

Author: Sandrine Perroud
Source: Mediacom