"I sometimes miss the willingness to pull together."
Federal Councilor Karin Keller-Sutter on the concerns of Swiss voters, the outlook for bilateral treaties and the political benefits of a slower pace.
Madame Councilor, the electorate is most concerned about Old Age and Survivors' Insurance/retirement provision, followed by healthcare/health insurance and the issue of foreigners. How do you interpret this perception of the problems people face?
It seems like a realistic and honest reflection of people's lives to me. Old Age and Survivor's Insurance and health insurance premiums have a very direct impact on people and their daily lives. Baby boomers will be retiring soon, so pillars 1 and 2 as well as any voluntary contributions to pillar 3 are a major topic. Health insurance premiums are becoming a greater burden, especially for families. However, regarding the issue of immigrants, we need to be aware, first, that asylum applications and immigration have fallen to record lows in recent years, and, second, that Switzerland has a new asylum system that is viewed with great respect throughout Europe. So I'm not especially surprised by the order of the rankings.
Concerns related to environmental protection/ climate change have increased by six percentage points, but the issue is "only" fourth on the list of worries. Does this surprise you?
Yes and no. Given the results of the federal elections, it does surprise me. On the other hand, Old Age and Survivors' Insurance and health insurance premiums have a more direct impact on people's daily lives. People are concerned about the climate, but they see that Switzerland cannot solve this problem by itself. And they also see that the Federal Council and Federal Assembly are doing a lot, such as completely overhauling the CO2 Act or Energy Strategy 2050.
Concerns about personal safety rose the most. At the same time, the police force is the only institution that gained trust. How do you explain this phenomenon?
Other long-term studies, such as one conducted by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and crime statistics show that Switzerland is a safe country. Over the last ten years ‒ i.e. since the Schengen Agreement came into effect in Switzerland ‒ the number of criminal offenses recorded by the police has fallen by 20 percent. Trust in the police and the government increased during this period, according to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and is higher than just about every other country. This doesn't mean we can sit back and relax. For me, at any rate, the security of Switzerland and the safety of its people are the top priorities. Without security there is no freedom. And without security there is also no prosperity.
Is there a need to act?
Every country is constantly facing new security questions, not just Switzerland. For some time these have mainly involved the ongoing battle against Jihadism as well as increasingly violent right-wing extremism. The questions that arise in this connection concern prevention, monitoring and punishment. The federal government and cantons are working in all areas to improve the system where necessary.
The relationship between Switzerland and the EU is a considerable concern for the survey respondents – are we facing a decisive period in the next several months?
Yes, we will have a vote on the Swiss People's Party's initiative to limit immigration, likely in May 2020. The initiative calls for the Federal Council to bring about a negotiated end to the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons within one year, or to terminate the agreement unilaterally if this is not possible. The initiative also aims to do away with Bilateral Agreements I, thus jeopardizing Switzerland's bilateral approach. The Federal Council and Federal Assembly have warned against such a step. This is because for nearly twenty years the bilateral approach has been Switzerland's key to accessing the European market and thus the country's prosperity, its jobs ‒ and ultimately its sense of security as well.
Could there be a problem with this referendum because of the considerable decline in the trust of politicians according to the Worry Barometer?
I do not think so. The 2019 study on security conducted by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology that I mentioned earlier shows that people's confidence in the Federal Council and the authorities rose again compared to the previous year. Another good indicator of people's confidence in the government are the voting results. The results were very favorable for the government with a few exceptions. In most cases, citizens continue to put their trust in the government.
However, there appears to be a growing sense of unease: Of those surveyed, 46 percent have the feeling that politicians have let them down, and more than 60 percent see a backlog of reforms that could jeopardize the Swiss identity.
I sometimes miss the willingness to work things out together in daily political life. We need to look beyond our own interests and work together to find solutions – even if these solutions aren't 100 percent what we wanted. However, first you need to have your own convictions. Only those who have an inner compass are capable of making compromises and thus helping to find solutions amenable to the majority. When asked about "solutions to political problems," most respondents said this is the obligation of the Federal Council.
At the same time, the Federal Assembly should be capable of making compromises and giving the business community, which a clear majority believes is capable of solving problems, the space it needs and not restricting it through more red tape. Is this the way Switzerland will overcome the backlog of reforms?
Yes, that sums up my own analysis quite well. A good example of this was the popular vote last spring on the federal bill on tax reform and AHV financing, known by its German acronym STAF. This was a pragmatic solution that appealed to a majority of voters. The same must now be done with the initiative to limit immigration. The Federal Council has taken a leading role here and clearly said that we want to continue with the free movement of persons and thus the bilateral approach, but we only want as much immigration as is necessary. We are thus promoting the domestic labor force and reducing cases of social hardship through targeted benefits. This is pragmatic and will hopefully help to achieve a majority against the initiative.
With respect to the institutional framework agreement, a majority is not prepared to compromise. If such a compromise were nevertheless necessary, the respondents would prefer to do so in the area of "salary protection." They have long emphasized the importance of having a social cushion to soften the impact of the framework agreement. Do you feel vindicated?
The Federal Council is convinced that we need to stabilize the relationship with the EU. Otherwise the bilateral relationship will erode, and it will become more difficult and less predictable. But there are still questions regarding the institutional agreement that we need to clarify ‒ questions related to state aid, the EU's Citizens' Rights Directive and salary protection, which we are currently discussing with our social partners. I think strong salary protection and a clear position on the EU's Citizens' Rights Directive would be decisive in achieving majority support for the treaty.
Finally, let's take a look into the future: When asked about their own situation in the next twelve months, 12 percent said it will be better than it is now, 75 percent said it will stay the same and 10 percent think it will get worse. Do you share this – cautious – sense of optimism?
Yes, I do. I believe Switzerland will continue to do very well in the future because we always manage to adapt to the needs of the time. If we succeed in maintaining Switzerland's traditional values and strengths, such as federalism, direct democracy, pragmatism and short decision-making paths, while at the same time remaining open to innovation and change, then our country will be very well positioned. This quote from Swiss historian Georg Thürer sums things up nicely: "Be a part of the modern world, but stay true to our Swiss roots." But this means we have work to do in those areas where we are still capable of acting ourselves.