"Switzerland can play a role as geopolitical mediator"
He wishes for a positive dialogue with the EU and believes in Switzerland's opportunity to be an "honest broker." However, Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis, Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, has a competent and pithy opinion on all the main worries of the Swiss.
Manuel Rybach: Federal Councillor, unlike last year, there is no top worry that clearly stands out. This year, three worries are at almost the same level: the coronavirus pandemic and its impact, environmental protection / climate change, and AHV / retirement provision. Were you expecting this?
Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis: That doesn't surprise me. These are issues that directly affect citizens and have an impact on their daily life. Furthermore, worries are also always strongly linked to media reporting, and those are the three topics that are currently ubiquitous. The only surprise for me is that a fourth topic did not appear: digitalization. There is currently a real revolution going on in this regard.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges for Switzerland?
A major challenge for Switzerland is surely transitioning away from fossil fuels toward renewable energies. Climate and the environment will continue to be on our agenda. In addition, retirement provision is also a topic that has been with us for a long time. Over the past twenty years in Switzerland, it has been impossible to get majority political support for necessary reform measures. Other European countries are also having difficulties with this. In many countries, the retirement age has been increased, in some cases with long transition rules. Switzerland has not yet managed to take one step forward. However, demographics are a fact, not an opinion. Facts and figures show that the proportion of the population reaching retirement age is increasing. This is the baby boom generation, my generation. We are faced with a very difficult problem between the generations. And our relations with the EU, of course, remain a key issue.
The reform backlog in the pension system that you mentioned is having an impact. One example of this is the fact that, for a few years now, AHV / retirement provision has always been in the top three of the biggest worries of the Swiss. How can effective, majority-backed reforms succeed here?
The reason why we haven't reached a societal consensus is probably also due to my generation. It has worked its entire life, and therefore also has high expectations for the system. However, we need a balance between young and old. The entitlement of the older generation may be understandable, but it does not sufficiently take into account the demographic trend and the low interest rates on the financial markets, which are therefore less able to contribute as "third-party payers." The policy deadlock may perhaps only be resolved through a popular initiative. There are currently two in the pipeline, including one from the Young Liberals, which aims to link retirement age to life expectancy. This makes one thing clear: If young people themselves are making use of the popular initiative instrument, then the concern must be great.
Exactly. It has often been said that we need a Greta Thunberg for this topic.
There are probably a lot of Greta Thunbergs coming from different parties (laughs). But young people are rightfully very worried about their retirement provision. They say that you should also be sustainable with regard to pension provision. And we cannot live off our children's credit cards. However, that is exactly what we are doing at the moment.
Despite the rejection of the CO2 Act last summer, the environmental protection / climate change worry experienced the biggest increase this year, with 10 percentage points. How do you interpret this result?
We are all aware that something has to be done, but we disagree on the specific solutions. The follow-up survey on the CO2 Act vote shows that the additional taxes were too big a hurdle. The question now arises as to whether environmental problems can be solved with incentives rather than with obligations. Unfortunately, there is no agreement on this.
Unemployment has dropped from last year's third place to ninth place, a historical low. How do you explain the fact that this worry has decreased so sharply this year, despite the coronavirus crisis?
I think there are two reasons for this: One is the solidity of our economy and of Switzerland as a business location. The other is the very significant pandemic-related government assistance. Over CHF 15 billion flowed through the short-time work system of unemployment insurance alone. Thanks to this massive inflow of money, wider-scale dismissals were avoided. We will see what happens when the crisis dies down and the money inflow stops. Will there be a wave of bankruptcies? Things could get difficult – especially for sectors that were already fragile before the pandemic and are now surviving thanks to this government funding.
In May 2021, the Federal Council decided not to sign the institutional framework agreement with the EU. The massive outcry among the population didn't happen. Nonetheless, the results of the Worry Barometer show that many people in this country care about our relationship with the EU. What is your opinion on this and how will the Federal Council proceed in the future?
That doesn't surprise me. Throughout its history, Switzerland has had to constantly seek a balance in its relationships to its neighbors. On the one hand, we are located in the heart of the continent and want stable, reliable relationships. On the other hand, we want to distinguish ourselves and be politically autonomous. This has repeatedly been a source of tensions, to which we have always found solutions. The Federal Council is now offering the EU a political dialogue in order to find a common path. However, this should not be a dry, administrative matter, but a political dialogue, in which both sides define their demands, needs, and core values. As it happens, both sides have a very strong interest in maintaining a good relationship with each other – not just economically, but also socially.
We cannot live off our children's credit cards.
Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis
The geopolitical situation appears to be becoming more complex and the balance of power less clear. What role can a small nation like Switzerland play in such a world?
The role of "honest broker," of mediator. The more hardened the geopolitical situation is, the more in demand Swiss diplomacy is. Some examples of this are the meetings between Presidents Putin and Biden in Geneva and the high-level meeting in early October between China and the US in Zurich. After four years as the head of the FDFA, what I've realized is that the high quality of our diplomatic corps has a lot to do with the particularities of Switzerland: We have a special linguistic and cultural diversity. We learn as children to develop a special regard for differences. And this ability to feel, hear, and interpret differences teaches us to build bridges. This leads, for instance, to the ability of our diplomatic corps to enable the Americans and the Iranians to talk to each other – at least indirectly.
As the current Worry Barometer shows, significantly more people than last year are worried about coexistence in our country. In general, most respondents indicate that, in their opinion, social stability is the most threatened. Do you share this concern?
I understand it. I see that the mood is heated and I can feel that people are nervous, even in my personal environment. Sociologically, I interpret this as coronavirus fatigue: Unclear perspectives, uncertain planning, discussions about vaccination, and so on. It frays the nerves. We now see the result on the streets with the many protests. It is important that we stop screaming at each other and once again listen and reach out to one another. After all, this social stability is one of the elements of Switzerland's strength.
As last year, the Federal Council enjoys the second-highest trust rating of all political and private actors after the police. However, 75% of respondents believe or tend to believe that the Federal Council should use its leadership role better. What do you make of that?
First of all, I'm happy. The Federal Council has worked well over the past two years, despite major challenges. In addition to the usual business, the pandemic gave us a lot of work. The fatigue is everywhere, including in the institutions. The Federal Council of course doesn't do everything right: Crisis management requires a lot of humility as well as checks and balances. There's always room for improvement, and it's a good thing that the population is reminding us of this, so that the Federal Council remains down to earth.
The fundamental resilience of this country is incredibly high.
Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis
Finally, let's try to look ahead: When asked about their own situation in the next 12 months, 12% said it will be better than it is now, 75% said it will stay the same, and 10% think it will get worse. Do you share this – cautious – sense of optimism?
I think that what we do as a country is amazing, and I'm glad to see the optimism of the Swiss. That was already evident during the financial crisis of 2008. The fundamental resilience of this country is incredibly high, despite certain societal tensions and momentary irritations. I'd like to make three closing remarks: First, let's be proud of what we have achieved as a country. Second, let's be aware that our prosperity is not God-given, but related to the personal responsibility of every individual in Switzerland. And third, let's carefully and sustainably manage what has been achieved.