Black Sheep Squadron

Is Switzerland Europe's heart of darkness?


Near the end of Carol Reed's 1949 noir classic The Third Man, Harry Lime, played by a brooding Orson Welles, disembarks from a Vienna Ferris wheel and delivers the film's best-remembered soliloquy. Pondering the relative merits of a libertine society, Lime muses that Italy was once governed by the House of Borgia, yet managed to produce "Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance," while the studiously inoffensive Swiss " had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." (Which, incidentally, is of German provenance.)

Indeed, Switzerland's international reputation has long been one of neutrality, dubious banking regulations and superior watch-making; a remarkably harmonious, multilingual country with postcard vistas and little violent crime. And as such, it's often invoked as a model to be emulated. For Second Amendment defenders, the country's low murder rate negates the assumption that more guns necessitate an increase in crime; Switzerland is awash in firearms, yet manages to avoid American levels of gun violence. Many even urged the provisional government in Iraq to adopt a Swiss canton-like ethnic division. Writing in Legal Times in 2003, author Gregory A. Fossedal argued implausibly that if the Bush administration was "looking to build democracy in a divided nation," they could "learn a lot from Switzerland."

But is this harmonious ethnic bouillabaisse liable to boil over? Last week, Britain's Independent newspaper wondered if little Switzerland was, in fact, "Europe's heart of darkness." The once sedate country, the paper claimed, is now "home to a new extremism that has alarmed the United Nations." At issue is the latest advertising campaign from the Swiss People's Party (Schweizerische Volkspartei, or SVP), the country's largest political party, controlling 55 of the 200 seats in the lower chamber of parliament. A recent SVP campaign poster, attempting to marshall support for the "Federal Popular Initiative for the Deportation of Criminal Foreigners," features two sheep—both white—grazing atop a Swiss flag, while a third uses its hind legs to kick a black sheep off out of the country. The party has unconvincingly denied any racist intent, claiming that the image simply suggests that immigrants who commit crimes should, like black sheep, be ostracized from the "flock" and returned to their country of origin.

Expelling non-native criminals is hardly a novel policy prescription in Europe. But the SVP went a step further, demanding that the immediate families of criminals under 18-years-old also be deported, leading critics to compare it to the Nazi policy of Sippenhaft—kin liability. Nor is this the SVP's first brush with controversy. A previous ad campaign featured a black hand dipping into a box of Swiss passports (over 20 percent of the population is foreign born), and a recent SVP proposal to ban the construction of minarets has roiled opposition politicians and activists. (Polling data shows that almost half the population supports the minaret ban).

The Independent might express astonishment, but European antipathy (and outright hostility) towards its immigrants is hardly new, as reflected in the increasing support for anti-immigration parties across the continent. Belgium's Vlaams Belang, the Sweden Democrats, France's National Front, Denmark's People's Party, and Austria's Freedom Party have all either made alarming electoral gains in recent years or have become power brokers in coalition governments. Various Western European countries—Italy, Germany, England and France—have considered or adopted bans on various forms of female Islamic dress, like the niqab or headscarf, in public schools. A blogger at Foreign Policy sighed that the situation in Switzerland unfortunately reflects "a larger general trend of racism and anti-Semitism brewing in the region."

That Europe is "trending racist" is surely an overstatement, though many of the continent's traditional paragons of racial and social tolerance, like the Netherlands, have travelled a bumpy road towards a multiethnic society and religious pluralism. After the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh, and the persistent death threats against anti-immigration politician Geert Wilders and Islam critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali, many native Dutch have become noticeably less "tolerant" of Muslim immigrants. According to the New York Times, a 2005 opinion poll found that 35 percent of "the native Dutch questioned had negative views about Islam," while Dutch polling firm Motivaction found that "63 percent of respondents think Islam is incompatible with modern European life." But this, of course, is a two-way street. A study by Frank Buijs of the University of Amsterdam's Institute of Migration and Ethnic Studies showed that Moroccan youth in the Netherlands are deeply skeptical of Dutch liberalism, with 40 percent of respondents saying they "reject western values and democracy."

In Denmark, a country long associated with socialism and sexual liberation, anti-immigrant sentiment has markedly increased, causing a left-wing columnist for Sweden's biggest daily to brand his fellow Scandinavians an unreservedly racist lot: "Our little neighbor is Western Europe's most prejudiced, bigoted and narrow-minded nation." A deeply unfair characterization to be sure, but the far right Danish People's Party, the country's third-largest, with approximately 13 percent voter support, is a vital bit player in the ruling Venstre Party coalition.

The depth of European skepticism towards immigration is difficult to gauge by merely charting the progress of far right parties. Across the continent, fringe parties have watched as establishment politicians appropriate portions of their message. When British political candidates collate the latest opinion poll data—suggesting deep skepticism to increased legal immigration; demonstrating a startling preponderance of illiberal attitudes amongst British Muslims—they respond with alacrity. Yesterday, the Sunday Telegraph reported that "Tens of thousands of immigrant workers will be forced to learn English before they are allowed into Britain under a plan [Labour] Prime Minister Gordon Brown is expected to announce tomorrow in a speech to the Trades Union Congress in Brighton…" Not exactly Enoch Powell, but Prime Minister Brown is clearly not courting the Neil Kinnock-wing of his party either.

For those in the hyperpuissance who argued that profligate social spending works counter to the goals of integration, it's difficult not to say "I told you so." When riots engulfed France's urban ghettos in 2005, many American commentators noted, with barely contained schadenfreude, that during the 1992 L.A. Riots, many in the French intellectual class viewed urban discontent as a uniquely American problem, deeply rooted in a cultural and economic conservatism. Indeed, President François Mitterrand told French state radio during the riots that in Los Angeles, "a racial and a social conflict" was manifesting itself in a country where "there is an absence of social legislation and protection…[America] is a conservative society, with a free-market economy, and we see some of the results" in the riots.

Europe, despite—or perhaps because of—its web of safety nets, is now confronting social problems long familiar to this country. And while there is no imminent danger of a far right takeover of Western European politics, the days easily contrasting a tolerant, free-spending Europe with an intolerant, inhumane America are long gone.

Michael Moynihan is an associate editor for reason.