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At a debate on EU membership organised by the Spectator on 20 September (read a report here), leading eurosceptic Daniel Hannan MEP compared the UK unfavourably with Switzerland. The Swiss experience of non-membership of the EU, he said, has been more beneficial than the UK experience of membership. We are poorer, both in economic terms and in the health of our democratic life.

That is what the MEP says: what about the facts?

Switzerland is undeniably richer than the UK (GDP per capita currently around $63,000 as opposed to $35,000) but is that because of the EU? The chart below shows the ratio of Swiss per capita GDP to that of the UK, since 1960 (the blue line) (data from the World Bank).

Ratios of GDP per capita (data from the World Bank)

Switzerland is richer now, but it was richer then, too. The gap between the two has widened, notably in the mid-1970s, which was a particularly bad time for the British economy, and since the economic crisis started in 2008. There have been periods of time when it has narrowed, too, during the late 1980s during the completion of the single market and during the long boom of the last decade. The ratio is now about where it was when Britain first joined the EEC in 1973.

Compare also the experience of Germany (the pink line). Again, Switzerland is richer than Germany, but consistently so. If it was membership of the EU that was dragging a country down, we would see the gap between Swiss and German wealth grow. In fact, that gap does not grow, which implies that membership of the EU is perfectly compatible with a successful economy. The fact that Britain has, relatively speaking, declined is due to failings in British economic policy and not due to membership of the EU.

So, if the contention that the EU is harming the British economy is proven to be false, what about the harm allegedly done to British democracy?

The chart below depicts election turnouts since 1979, showing Switzerland, the UK and the European Parliament (percentages from International IDEA).

Election turnouts (data from International IDEA)

The lowest turnouts are the Swiss. So much for the contention of a nation of politically engaged independent citizens, as opposed to the democracy-denied British. Swiss turnouts are even generally lower than those of the European Parliament! Daniel Hannan doesn’t like to tell us that.

Of course, Switzerland is a federal country, so there are elections at other levels of government to take into account. The latest elections in the canton of Bern saw a turnout of 43.48 per cent, in Luzern it was 43.5 per cent, and in Zürich, it was only 35 per cent, i.e. lower than the federal turnout.

There is also the culture of direct democracy, in which issues of public controversy can be put to referendums, but turnout in these referendums is normally less than 50 per cent. A study of Swiss democracy by the University of Zurich and the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB) reported that:

“A large part of the Swiss population does not engage in politics and those who do are primarily educated, well-off, older and disproportionately male.”

Looking out at the audience at the Spectator debate, we can see why the Swiss model might be attractive to them. But to the rest of us, maybe not so much.

Swiss democracy and the Swiss economy have many admirable features, but membership of the European Union does not prevent Britain from emulating them. If there are failings in our own political system, giving us bad decisions and mistaken policies, we should recognise them for what they are and not be content simply to blame them on others.

To leave the EU in the hope that this would make us more like Switzerland is a fantasy. If we want to be more like the Swiss, we can, and we don’t have to give up the benefits of EU membership in order to do so.

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