LONDON — For centuries, the accepted wisdom across Europe has been that the Swiss have used the mountain ranges that surround them and the deadly accuracy of Swiss marksmen as protection against invading armies. It has undoubtedly worked, since Switzerland has never been conquered.
In 1515, Switzerland adopted a position of armed neutrality and hasn’t fought a military battle in 500 years.
Which is why it came as quite a surprise last May when a brigade of unelected bureaucrats in Brussels was able to accomplish what no army in Europe had been able to achieve in half a millennia: take guns out of the hands of the Swiss.
Under pressure to comply with tighter gun restrictions passed by the European Union in the wake of deadly 2015 terror attacks in Paris, Switzerland was given an ultimatum: either to change the gun laws that have been central to the country’s identity and security since firearms were first introduced to Europe in the 14th Century or be kicked out of Europe’s open-border trading system.
It was an extraordinary demand that gave the world a glimpse into the kind of EU overreach that prompted Great Britain to vote to “leave” the EU back in 2016. As all eyes remain fixed today on Britain in the run-up to the so-called “Brexit election” on December 8, the campaign to bully the Swiss last May is proof that Brexit is beside the point: There is a fundamental flaw in the EU charter, one that has allowed what America’s Founding Fathers called, “the tyranny of the majority” to be institutionalized at the heart of Europe.
As an American who has lived for half a century in England and Switzerland, I’m often asked the difference between democracy in Europe and America. While there are many answers to that question, the primary difference — what I’d argue makes the USA so unique — can be summarized in three words: the Tenth Amendment.
While the EU is a democracy made up of 28 disparate countries, the US is a constitutional democracy of 50 states organized as a federal republic. Under the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, any rights or responsibilities not expressly granted to the federal government “are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
Of course, American conservatives have complained for two centuries that the Federal government has exceeded its authority regardless. But it is the 10th Amendment that provides a legal framework for states to push back to argue that the rights of individual states, or the rights of the minority, have been infringed. Even in the case of far-reaching legislation like former President Barack Obama’s effort to overhaul America’s health care system, known as Obamacare, each state had the right, informed by the 10th Amendment, to refuse Federal dollars and opt out of the program, which 14 states did.
By contrast, the European Union has no equivalent of the 10th Amendment — in part because the rights of the minority were not the primary concern when the EU as we know it began as the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951. That early step toward post-war unity sought to enmesh a minority of one — namely, a recovering Germany — into the economic web of five western European nations. When it eventually became the European Economic Community in 1957 and then the European Union in 1993, the focus remained on the free movement of people and capital across a unified market.
Now in its 26th year, the EU is, in one important sense, a miracle. It makes war all but impossible between the constituent countries.
And yet, as can happen when you combine governments, the EU has evolved into a bureaucratic nightmare.
Brexit architects like UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson readily admit that some of what they used to sell the “leave” vote — like claiming that EU bureaucrats sought to standardize the size of condoms or to ensure that manure smelled the same everywhere — was not true. But even so, there’s been far too much finger-pointing at Britain and far too little introspection among bureaucrats in Brussels over why a nation that suffered so greatly in two horrific wars would voluntarily leave the European Union.
I didn’t think much about it myself until my long-time friend and former Legionnaire, Simon Murray, said to me the day before the Brexit vote that he didn’t think “English farmers should be told what they could and could not grow by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels.” I was intrigued and investigated. I learned that not only was Simon correct about farmers being told what to grow, but more than 10,000 separate regulations have been levied on British citizens and businesses since 1993 — not to mention 759 separate bilateral agreements that govern everything from vacuum cleaners to fishing rights.
Which brings us back to Switzerland, which isn’t a EU member but follows the bloc’s rules as part of Europe’s Schengen open border system that grants non-members passport-free travel. For 400 years, rifles and similar weapons have been a sacred part of Swiss culture.
As a neutral country in a frequently hostile region, Switzerland has long relied on its sharpshooting to protect itself, with a novel twist: after mandatory military service, many of its young conscripts take their military-issued rifles, including semi-automatic weapons, home with them, to be ready to mobilize at a moment’s notice in the event of danger. Switzerland’s most famous soldier, General Henri Guisan, told Time in 1942 that under its system, 600,000 Swiss could be mobilized in half an hour.
But the EU’s new gun laws ban certain types of semi-automatic weapons, including the guns that young Swiss train on and that soldiers bring home. While Switzerland — which has no vote or voice in EU policy — pushed back to secure some exemptions, the choice was stark: change your laws or be denied entry to the open-border laws.
It is that exact fear of the tyranny of the majority without recourse — either “you’re with us, or you’re gone” — that inspired America’s founders to insist on the Tenth Amendment.
If the European Union was a Republic — a United States of Europe — with each member country having power over domestic issues within its borders while granting limited powers to Brussels on collective issues like currency and defense, it would both protect the peace and preserve European democracy. It would enable very different cultures to co-exist together, not just for two decades, but for the long term. It would preserve what is best about the EU while giving individual member countries the right to govern as their unique histories, cultures, and values guide them to do.
But I’m not an optimist. The Brexit vote in 2016 demonstrated that the EU has gone too far. But for all the fun Europe has had at Britain’s expense, and for all the predictions about how the “Brexit election” will turn out next week, the pressure campaign applied against the Swiss in 2019 proves that the bureaucrats in Brussels have learned nothing.
Europe has a lot of famous mountains, and Switzerland might have the most famous of them all. But in the end, the mountain of indifference in the Belgian capital might prove to be the one hill that Europe can’t climb. And someday, it will be the EU’s undoing.