C. Markwalder: "Neutrality doesn't mean apathy."
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C. Markwalder: "Neutrality doesn't mean apathy."

Christa Markwalder, who as president of the National Council holds the highest position of any woman in Swiss politics, discusses refugees, the patriotic left, negotiations with Europe and her motto for the year ahead: "Respect."

Simon Brunner, Elena Scherrer: The Swiss are most worried about unemployment, immigration and retirement provision. What do you think are the country's most important issues?

Christa Markwalder: In my view, Switzerland's greatest challenge is maintaining its international competitiveness and appeal as a business location. Of course this has consequences for the labor market, either as low or rising unemployment. Other works in progress include the Pensions Reform 2020, the Energy Strategy 2050 and our future relationship with Europe.

Worries about foreigners have increased dramatically since 2009. There are concerns about immigrants in general as well as about asylum seekers. Why? What needs to be done?

The referendum against "mass immigration," which was passed by a narrow margin in February 2014, was an expression of this rising concern. Although immigration can heighten the pressure on housing and transport, we shouldn't lose sight of its positive side. Thanks to the free movement of persons, highly qualified foreign nationals contribute to Switzerland's prosperity through their labor and taxes, as well as their consumption. We have additionally tightened spatial planning regulations and are in the process of expanding our transport network. Businesses must also consider their own recruitment strategies. In the end, it's their decision to search for employees who are already in Switzerland.

Switzerland has a long tradition of accepting refugees and asylum seekers. Is this under threat? What role should Switzerland play in the current refugee crisis?

We have good reason to take pride in our humanitarian tradition. As long as it's not exploited, I don't think it's under threat. We've expedited asylum procedures considerably, so it no longer takes years for a ruling to take effect. Paradoxically, the Swiss People's Party (SVP) has proposed another referendum against this revision to the asylum law.

When asked about Switzerland's future relationship with the EU, 47 percent agree with the bilateral approach. Only 18 percent support its termination. What does that mean for the Swiss government's relations with Brussels?

We're all interested in good and well-regulated relations with the EU, not least because a substantial part of our prosperity depends on it. But first we must find a way to implement the new constitutional article on managing immigration (a result of the February 2014 referendum) without endangering the bilateral agreements. Then we want to consolidate and further develop the bilateral approach within an institutional framework. With solid popular support, our negotiations with Brussels will be stronger.

Egotism was identified as the greatest danger to Swiss identity (71 percent), ahead of the EU and immigration. How do you interpret this result?

Our society is becoming increasingly individualistic. Diverse lifestyles and family models are now the norm, but the willingness to engage in volunteer work has unfortunately declined. It's precisely this social engagement – whether for politics, culture, sports, or charitable organizations – that is among the greatest accomplishments of Switzerland and its militia system.

The percentage of those who are "proud to be Swiss" has increased steadily over the past ten years, above all on the political left. Today those on the left are better represented in the "very proud" group than those on the right. Has the right lost its "Swissness"?

I'm pleased that pride in our country is so pronounced on all sides of the political spectrum.

The Swiss have a great deal of confidence in the Federal Council, the National Council, and the Council of States. These institutions have attained a level of trustworthiness far beyond politicians in other countries. Why does politics enjoy such a good reputation here?

I see that as an affirmation of the value of our efforts. Direct democracy certainly plays a positive role, since it provides people with a means of participating in the political process, so they feel part of the system. I interpret relatively low voter participation as an expression of satisfaction, rather than frustration with politics.

The survey results consistently emphasize the importance of neutrality. Is this a sign that the Swiss want to separate themselves from the rest of the world in these difficult times?

Neutrality doesn't mean apathy! Even as a neutral state, we assume international responsibility by participating in the community of states, humanitarian aid, good offices and protective power mandates.

The internet has brought clear challenges to the political arena, including demands for better protection of personal data and photos and criminal prosecution for attacks on digital identity. Is enough being done here?

Data protection in the digital age is an enormous challenge, since no one has territorial jurisdiction over the internet. Switzerland would be wise to consider introducing a "right to be forgotten" here as well. Last year the National Council and Council of States brought a motion from my colleague Raphaël Comte (FDP) to the Federal Council to make abuse of digital identity a criminal offense. But in the end, the internet is like any other aspect of life, in that everyone must be accountable for their own actions. You should only post what you're willing to stand behind later.

68 percent of those surveyed want internet voting – Swiss living abroad can already vote online. When can everyone else?

Soon, I hope, since that's a logical next step in our digital age, just like the introduction of voting by mail in an earlier era. E-voting is important not only for Swiss living abroad; it can also increase the democratic participation of "digital natives."

As president of the National Council, what are your plans for the year ahead?

First of all, I place great importance in a well-functioning Council that fosters fair, respectful and meaningful debates. I would also like to represent our values and strengths at home and abroad – including freedom and accountability, democracy and constitutionalism, tolerance and solidarity, commitment and dependability. Simply put, the motto of my presidential year will be "respect."