The Swiss citizenry has this year ruled, among other things, on extension of federal government's taxation rights until 2035, giving monopoly on money creation to the Swiss National Bank, on the precedence of Swiss constitution over the international law.

And, most famously, also on whether cows have the right to their horns.

Has there been any more or less rigorous/academic exploration of the compatibility of this kind of direct democracy with EU membership?

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    Considering that the Swiss have consistently rejected referendums to enter EU membership, I'm pretty sure they believe it's incompatible.
    – hszmv
    Commented Dec 10, 2018 at 14:08
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    This question doesn't make sense, since it assumes that each country uses the same voting scheme and decision processes for European laws as it does for national laws.
    – DonFusili
    Commented Dec 10, 2018 at 14:26
  • @DonFusili National laws can contradict European laws. And it would be much harder for Brussels to lean on the Swiss citizenry not to vote some national law in than on Swiss politicians.
    – user75619
    Commented Dec 10, 2018 at 14:31
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    At best this question makes no sense. Being part of the EU means following EU rules, yes. But how national laws are enacted (either to transpose directives, or to decide in the many aspects not covered by EU laws) is not the EU's business (as long as the country is a democracy). At worst this is a rant, with the expected answer already given in the question. The language in the question (this level of participation wouldn't be *tolerated* for too long) makes me think that it is the later case.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Dec 10, 2018 at 14:54
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    @Thern It's still my opinion, just in a more direct form. I highlighted it once by pointing to that I was speaking from my feelings, or do I need to put it in every sentence? I wasn't answering my question either - my question is about informed opinion, hence the words rigorous/academic. My opinion can't be said to be informed. I do tend to lean towards direct democracy being incompatible with the EU, but it's from nothing else than my own casual observation, which, needless to say, can be erroneous.
    – user75619
    Commented Dec 10, 2018 at 16:47

2 Answers 2


As SJuan96 already pointed out in the comments, the EU does not forbid direct democracy. But of course there are certain rules that have to be obeyed when being a member of the EU - as is the case for a membership in any group. Acting against these rules and staying in the group will pose a problem (although reality shows that breaking the rules will be tolerated to a certain extent if the rulebreakers are determined enough).

Since joining a group brings the burden of adhering to the rules of the group, yes, this may limit the things people can decide via direct democracy. But this is not EU-specific. Switzerland, being part of the World Tade Organisation, also has to adhere to the rules of the World Trade Organisation. A group actually makes little sense if any member is to be allowed to always act as it wants.

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    Switzerland also already holds many agreements which limit what they can do - this includes free movement of people and economic policies.
    – Mavrik
    Commented Dec 10, 2018 at 22:36
  • OP asks for a rigorous or academic exploration of the compatibility between EU membership and the Swiss democratic system. Can you back this up with a link to such a piece of work? Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 4:46
  • I agree with indigochild, this does not provide an answer to the question as asked. That's more because the question as asked is a bad one, though.
    – DonFusili
    Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 14:03
  • @Bregalad WTO = World Trade Organization, see wto.org
    – Thern
    Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 9:34
  • @indigochild I see what you mean. However, to do this one should first define what compatibility means in this case. As the question was asked originally, it sounded like any limitations of the possible results of ballots would mean an incompatibility with the Swiss direct democracy (the idea being that the people should be able to vote for virtually anything). In this case, you don't need academic rigor to show that indeed a membership in the EU will limit these outcomes.
    – Thern
    Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 9:41

By joining the EU, the Swiss would agree to transfer legislative competence in certain areas to the European Parliament (in conjunction with the Council of the European Union). These areas are set out in Title I of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. Anything not on this list remains within the sole competence of the member state, to be decided upon in whatever (democratic) way that state chooses.

As such, there is no reason why the Swiss could not continue to have popular votes on their constitution and national laws - except for laws in areas of exclusive union competence, and laws in shared union competence that contradict EU law.

To make this a little clearer, let's look at your provided examples:

  • The vote on federal taxation would stand, because taxation is outside union competence.
  • The vote about the Swiss monetary system would stand, because the EU has monetary competency only for member states that have chosen to adopt the Euro.
  • The initiative about the precedence of the Swiss law over international law is an interesting case. If adopted, it would have required the Swiss government to renegotiate any international treaty contradicting Swiss law, or leave the treaty if such negotiation was not possible. If the conflict was with passed EU law, renegotiation would have been procedurally difficult, and the Swiss government would likely have been required to leave the EU as a result.
  • The initiative about financial incentives for farmers whose cows have horns would most likely stand, since agriculture is an area of shared union competency, and I can't imagine the EU passing a directive that would forbid additional funding for cow horns.

As you can see, none of these votes would have been prevented by EU law, and all would have been binding.

In addition, the Swiss might be able to make their participation in the EU lawmaking process more direct than usual by passing a (national) law that requires their representatives in the Council of the European Union to vote in accordance with a previously held popular vote.

In summary, joining the EU would mean that policy in some areas could no longer be decided by the Swiss alone, but in all other areas, Switzerland would retain full sovereignty, and the Swiss would be free to vote as directly as they please.

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