The recent Swiss immigration referendum as a study in storytelling

The recent Swiss immigration referendum as a study in storytelling

Swiss flag_wisegieThough discussion of political issues has often left me cold and bored in recent times, I watched the latest debate about immigration in Switzerland with considerable interest. As a foreigner and property owner living in this country, it is a matter that could potentially have a direct impact on me and some of the people close to me. Beyond my personal situation, though, I found this incident to be a fascinating case study in storytelling.

As I often tell my audiences, I am somewhat dismayed by the uses of storytelling I see in modern politics. Far too often, the narratives crafted by candidates and public officials, aided by their consultants and handlers, seem to be tales designed to manipulate an audience. These are certainly not the type of authentic stories of identity I have long advocated.

At the same time, politics and storytelling seem inextricably linked, and for good reason. Narrative has always been the most powerful oratory tool for changing minds, far more persuasive than logical analysis or rational argument. Story is the only way to reach people emotionally; a good narrative touches both our heads and our hearts at the same time, while other forms of argumentation rely only on persuading our minds.

Open-minded or undecided voters who listen to stories on both sides of an issue are often convinced by what they perceive to be the “better” story, the more authentic and credible one. And, this seemed to be the case in the Swiss referendum on immigration policy, a debate in which the country appeared to be evenly split. So, let’s first look at the issue and understand the context.

The context and the vote:

Switzerland is in a unique position. Situated in the geographic heart of Europe, it is nevertheless not a member of the European Union. As a nation, the Swiss walk a fine line, committed to protecting their national sovereignty while trying to retain access to the European market. As such, Switzerland has chosen to remain a completely independent country, albeit one that has entered into many bilateral agreements with Brussels over single-market access.

While the Swiss enforce quotas on immigrants from non-European states, an agreement signed in 1999 allows Swiss and EU nationals to move freely between the two territories. As a sovereign state and non-EU member, though, Switzerland is free, like any other nation, to abrogate its treaties and agreements.

Here’s a video to give you an impression of the situation:

As my professional work for the past 20 years has focused on the concept of self-definition and self-expression through stories of identity, I find it interesting that the Swiss national “who we are” story presents something of a paradox. On the one hand, this small country is fierce defender of its freedom and independence. It likes to go its own way at times, to be free to make its own decisions. On the other hand, the Swiss see themselves as a land of entrepreneurs and traders with a pro-business mindset, and home to some of the world’s most important multinational companies.

Swiss people also cherish the uniqueness of the Confederation’s system of semi-direct democracy, where citizens can request that a direct popular vote be taken on any measure enacted by the parliament.

Thus, on Sunday February 9, the Swiss voted in a national referendum that called into question the 1999 agreement with the European Union. The initiative was sponsored by the ultraconservative Swiss People’s Party (In German: Schweizerische Volkspartei, or SVP), a group that has always been a staunch opponent of allowing easy access to Swiss borders for EU citizens. The SVP proposed rescinding the current agreement with the EU in favor of a system of quotas that would be negotiated with Brussels.

In the end, a slim majority of 50.3 percent approved the measure, giving the government three years to negotiate the new immigration quotas with the EU. The result of the vote was a surprise to most political analysts, who had predicted that the proposed resolution would not pass, since the government, the banks, and big business were all opposed.

Some may consider it an oversimplification, but I felt that this was a case where the SVP convinced significant numbers of the undecided citizens by crafting and telling the “better” story. Next time, I will explain this conclusion in some detail.

[Image: flickr user wisegie]

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