On national and Europe-wide referendums – and why Switzerland is a flawed role model.

Europe’s Fear of the Electorate

Translation of Book Chapter from „Europe between Populists and Bureaucrats“ by Goethe Institute, Project Freiraum, 2019.

By Niklaus Nuspliger

Parliament empty chairs

The history of relations between Switzerland and the EU can be told as a tale of misunderstandings. After the Swiss voted „no“ to accession to the European Economic Area (EEA) in 1992, the EU agreed to sectoral agreements on the assumption that Switzerland would join the Union later. Switzerland calls this relationship to Brussels bilateral, while the EU points out that Switzerland’s cooperation agreements and its participation in the internal market make it a party to a multilateral project – so it should follow the rules accordingly.
Another cause of misunderstandings is the difference in the way they view referendums. In the autumn of 2018, when Alain Berset, the Swiss president at the time, spoke in Brussels about the negotiations on a framework agreement, he stressed that, in a direct democracy, the government cannot simply conclude treaties that are liable to be rejected by the electorate. The EU has little patience with this argument because any country can always claim it is hindered by some domestic policy considerations.

Over the years, moreover, Brussels has grown increasingly sceptical about direct democracy, seeing as member states’ referendums on European policy have rarely turned out favourably for the EU. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was anything but an ardent European, and yet her remark that referendums are a „device of dictators and demagogues“ would be well received in Brussels today. The Swiss, on the other hand, regard direct democracy as the best, if not the only true, form of democracy, and other European countries as, at best, second-rate democracies. This opinion was borne out, they felt, as they watched various European countries experiment with referendums in recent years as a means of countering the democratic recession.
But such experiments in direct democracy also raise some questions I would like to address in the following. Is it possible to transplant elements of direct democracy in a representative system just like that? Are national referendums suitable tools for use in international relations? Do referendums make a country more democratic per se? And why does the Swiss brand of direct democracy find its most fervent advocates in right-wing nationalist circles?

Link to the full book chapter in English.

Debate: “EU-Swiss Relations and Euroscepticism” 19. 05. 2020

TEPSA, in cooperation with the Center for Comparative and International Studies (CIS) from ETH Zürich, is organising an online discussion on EU-Swiss relations and Euroscepticism.

Relations between the EU and Switzerland are in limbo, caught between Euroscepticism and pragmatism. Swiss disagreement on the signing of the Institutional Agreement blocks the way forward. At the same time, there is no majority in favour of a rollback of bilateralism. What explains the stalemate and how could it be overcome?

May 15th Book Presentation in Brussels

Can Innovation and Direct Engagement Bring European Democracy Back to the People? 

A joint event of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom and
the Mission of Switzerland to the EU, with a book presentation by N. Nuspliger


Niklaus Nuspliger, author of „Europa zwischen Populisten-Diktatur und Bürokraten-Herrschaft“ (“Europe between Populist Dictatorship and Bureaucratic Rule”) identifies two main reasons for the European democracy crisis. On the one hand, citizens in the “institutional jungle” of the EU have lost the overview and possibility to influence. On the other hand, representative democracy has generally fallen into crisis, therefore fueling a sense of disempowerment among citizens. This results in the loss of confidence in the institutions, growing political apathy, the declining performance of traditional people’s parties, but also political polarization and fragmentation. Nuspliger offers ways out of this dilemma between authoritarianism and technocracy, through stronger and more innovative direct involvement of citizens.

This event will discuss the state of the union, forms of democratic innovation, as well as direct participation by citizens as a way to bring European democracy back to the people.

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Registration: 12:00h

Event & Light Lunch: 12:15 – 14:00h

Venue: Swiss Mission to the EU, Place de Luxembourg 1, 1050 Brussels

Kindly register for this event by 13 May 2019 at https://tinyurl.com/y4gojmgc *


Urs Bucher
Head of the Swiss Mission to the EU

Thomas Ilka

Director European Dialogue,
Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom


Niklaus Nuspliger
Author, Brussels Correspondent of NZZ

Alexander Miesen

President, Parliament of the German-speaking Community

Simona Pronckute (tbc)

Board member, ECI Campaign


Valentina Pop

Brussels correspondent, Wall Street Journal

The event will be accompanied by simultaneous interpretation in German and English.

Book Review by Florian Eder, Brussels Playbook, Politico Europe

Link to the article: politi.co/2VWrqbH

By FLORIAN EDER 22.4.2019

A DIFFERENT VIEW: Niklaus Nuspliger, the EU correspondent for Swizerland’s Neue Zürcher Zeitung, takes a look at the state of Europe through a wider lens. And what he sees isn’t pretty. His new book, “Europa zwischen Populisten-Diktatur und Bürokratenherrschaft” (“Europe, in between populist dictatorship and bureaucratic rule”), which hits bookstores in German tomorrow, describes the crisis of liberal democracies. It draws on his travels around the Continent — he reports from Budapest, Amsterdam, a tennis court in southern France, a “dusty bench on rondpoint Schuman” — and combines a Swiss sense of distance from the EU’s internal workings with his own sharp analysis on the success of illiberal politics. Refreshingly, the book doesn’t stop there.

How to engage with voters: The book’s most inspiring sections mull the question of how democracies can defend themselves from being taken over by a reckless majority and discuss the pros and cons of various forms of citizens’ participation, including direct democracy and Rousseau, the Italian 5Star Movement’s online democracy tool. He also goes on a fascinating tangent on how the Swiss manage to turn even the most radical referenda results into pragmatic policies.

#SwissBreakfast on „Direct democracy – an antidote to populism?“

Wednesday, 03.04.2019 – Wednesday, 03.04.2019

Swiss policy on the European Union; Bilateral agreements Switzerland-EU; Other files Switzerland-EU

#SwissBreakfast ©FDFA

H.E. Urs Bucher, Ambassador of Switzerland to the EU, cordially invites you to share a typical #SwissBreakfast and join the discussion on „Direct democracy – an antidote to populism?“ on Wednesday 3rd April 2019 from 9.00 am to 10.30 am at the Mission of Switzerland to the EU, Place du Luxembourg 1, 1050 Brussels. 


Welcome speech by Dieter Cavalleri, Minister at the Mission of Switzerland to the EU.

Followed by a discussion between

Claude Longchamp 
Political scientist, historian and chairman of the board of gfs.bern (Gesellschaft für Sozialforschung, Switzerland)

Jo Leinen  
Member of the European Parliament (S&D, Germany)Moderated by
Niklaus Nuspliger
Correspondent NZZ in Brussels

Modern representative democracy is at stake. The challenges come from all sides: on the one hand from the globalised economy, which transcends in many ways the reach of national democracies, and on the other hand from populist movements trying to undermine the rule of law and the separation of powers.

Over the past years a rise in popular votes in countries all over Europe has been observed. The development towards a more participative democracy has perhaps been the most comprehensive in Switzerland. Thanks to its use of the initiative and referendum process, Switzerland has become a reference in discussions about modern democracy.

While the European elections are approaching, voices are being raised demanding more direct participation in the decision making process. Can instruments like the European Citizens‘ Initiative (ECI) unleash democratic potential at the EU level? Can direct democracy help to restrain populist movements and become an antidote to populism? How can governments and institutions meet the demand for a more participative democracy and facilitate a bottom-up approach?

The Interpreter’s Tale.

Even Magazine, Issue 9 Spring 2018

by Niklaus Nuspliger

Two interpreters hard at work at the European Parliament in Brussels. Photo: Pietro Naj Oleari.

When I moved to Brussels from New York four years ago, I found the city impossible to pin down. It’s a place of contradictions and coexistence, a chaotic capital of bureaucrats and artists that can feel charming and repellent at the same time. It is one of the rare intersections for Belgians of both language groups, and in places it hardly feels like Belgium at all. The Haussmannian buildings in the bourgeois area of Châtelain serve as backdrops for movies set in Paris. The many brick stone houses reminded me of the UK; the historic center felt Flemish and Dutch. And when I first walked through the souk just behind the Gare du Midi I might have thought I was in Morocco, if it hadn’t been for the rain.

As elusive as the city was the subject I had moved here to write about: the European Union, this strange hybrid of a confederation and a federal state whose power never seemed to reveal itself. Each day I’d navigate through the European quarter and meet members of the European Parliament, eurocrats working for the Commission, lobbyists, thinktankers, and some of the countless diplomats representing the 28 (soon to be 27) member states. Many people in the EU bubble seemed to hold some power, but no one ever seemed really in charge. The EU has to uphold so many regional and political balances that decisions are often the result of negotiations and subtle procedures rather than of frontline power politics. And when things do get political, the ministers from Berlin, Paris, Warsaw, or Rome — and not the allegedly almighty eurocrats — often get the last word.

Link to the full article.