By the narrowest possible margin, Switzerland voted to join the United Nations Sunday, thus abandoning its long tradition of isolation. Almost 55 percent of voters supported the referendum, though the “yes” camp almost failed to win approval in a majority of the 23 cantons, as the Swiss system requires. In the end, 12 cantons voted yes, but as the Financial Times observed, “The vote underlined once again the deep divisions between the country’s French and German-speaking regions and the rift between big cities such as Zurich and the founding cantons such as Schwyz. The French-speaking Cantons … overwhelmingly backed UN membership, while the majority of German-speaking cantons … rejected it.” Le Figaro of France said, “It was a nervous little ‘yes.’ The Swiss voted half-heartedly to join.” Britain’s Guardian summarized the arguments on each side of the debate:
Supporters say the time has come to shed the isolationist myth of an Alpine nirvana by accepting the responsibilities of international engagement. They are embarrassed that only Switzerland and the Vatican state are non-members. Opponents say a unique and successful way of life will be thrown away just because the country’s political and economic elite want to schmooze with an organisation tainted by incompetence, corruption and warmongering.
Many commentators concluded that the vote marked what the FT described as “a turning point in [Switzerland’s] relationship with the wider world. It marks the end of the country’s rather quaint idea that it is a special case.” Geneva’s Le Temps headlined its coverage of the vote “One small step for the United Nations, a giant leap for Switzerland.” An editorial in the Tribune de Genève suggested that the Swiss had accepted that “we are neither better nor worse than the others. … We can participate in world affairs without worrying so much about national unity.”
Attitudes have clearly changed since 1986, the last time Switzerland voted on joining the United Nations, when the referendum was rejected by a vote of 3-1. The Independent pointed out that “Switzerland is now surrounded by countries that not only belong to the European Union, but share one currency.” Since Geneva is the home of the second-largest U.N. office, full membership for Switzerland, which is expected to be granted in September, will end the curious situation where many key U.N. institutions were based in a nonmember country. Le Temps spoke of “salvaged credibility.” Moreover, neighbors were beginning to resent Swiss neutrality. The Financial Times claimed, “[I]ts failure to participate fully in the UN has strengthened its reputation as a selfish country unwilling to shoulder its share of global responsibilities.”