Dominique de Buman: "Switzerland Is More Modern than Ever"
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Dominique de Buman: "Switzerland Is More Modern than Ever"

Dominique de Buman, the new Swiss leader, on his concerns for the country, the meaning of national cohesion and his objectives as President of the National Council.

Manuel Rybach : The Swiss are most worried about unemployment and Old Age and Survivors' Insurance (AHV), as well as foreigners. What do you think are the country's most important issues?

Dominique de Buman: I understand people's concerns. As a politician, however, I see other, pressing problems. My clear top priority is healthcare: I have still not heard a proposal for addressing rising health insurance premiums. On the contrary, the overlap between the federal government and the cantons, especially with respect to expensive hospital infrastructure, is striking. We face unpleasant questions. What is a dignified life? How far should life-saving measures go? Will access to care have to be restricted?

What other concerns do you have?

I am very concerned about environmental protection and the question of how to deal with global warming. This is a global problem, but it is a concern for us as well. And finally, I wonder what relationship Switzerland will have with the world and especially with Europe in the future. We have still not found a conclusive answer to this question.

Concern about the AHV has risen sharply. Is this due solely to reporting in the run-up to the referendum on retirement provision this September?

The referendum played a role – but an increase of 16 percentage points cannot be explained by this alone. The public realizes how the population pyramid has changed. Even the left now accepts that the conversion rate must be reduced. The public also sees from their own bank accounts how low interest rates and thus yields are. And it is clear in many places that there is a lack of workers, especially highly-trained specialists – i.e. contributors. We did not have this awareness five years ago. 

If older people are healthy and fit, then this represents an enormous opportunity for us.

Speaking of longevity and AHV, is there a looming generational conflict in Switzerland because of the proportion of young people to old people?

I supported the retirement provision reform. It was not perfect, but now there is no plan B. I do fear that there will be a clash between generations. The financial gap will grow wider and wider and reform will be just about impossible for the foreseeable future.

Sixty-eight percent of respondents say that they welcome the social impact of people living longer. Is longevity a blessing for Switzerland or will it be outweighed by the resulting problems?

If older people are healthy and fit, then this represents an enormous opportunity for us. For example, if we can reduce social costs somewhat by having them help with childcare or perform volunteer work. This may also extend to the work world too. We want to adhere to the principle of priority for nationals, but at the same time there is an enormous shortage of qualified workers. There is only one solution to this problem: women and older people must be better integrated into the labor market. If everyone plays a role in society, then this is also good for national cohesion.

The issues of foreigners and refugees/asylum seekers have declined in the Worry Barometer over the past two years. How do you explain this decline?

The number of immigrants has fallen this year; this is probably the main reason. In addition, images of the humanitarian crisis unfolding on the Mediterranean are widely circulated. This increases sympathy for refugees and makes them seem like less of a "problem." Furthermore, people realize that a certain amount of migration is unavoidable. As long as development aid does not work properly and the countries where immigrants come from continue to make little progress, people will make their way here. Many more will come in the future because birthrates in Africa are extremely high. We are only at the beginning of this challenge.

The trend was different for concerns about traffic/NEAT. Nearly four times as many respondents as in 2009 say they are concerned about this issue. Do you share this concern?

Yes. Traffic in Switzerland is becoming worse, and more people are using the infrastructure. The public transportation system is beyond capacity, and the country's highways are congested. This is due in part to population growth, but it also has to do with the increasing flexibility of the labor market. Employees are being forced to commute more. All of these factors create negative sentiment.

I am not sure that we are using resources optimally here in Switzerland.

When asked what kind of relationship Switzerland should have with the European Union, 60 percent of respondents said that they would like to see the bilateral agreements continue. Last year, this figure was 81 percent. How do you explain this?

I am in favor of the free movement of people, but I understand the problems related to it. I increasingly ask myself whether our economy really needs to grow constantly no matter the cost, making it necessary to attract foreign workers. Furthermore, I am not sure that we are using resources optimally here in Switzerland. In the tourism industry, for example, more than 50 percent of employees come from another country. Many Swiss are overqualified for these jobs or they do not want to do them. I hope that the difficult situation on the labor market will ease with the help of digitalization, which will allow simple tasks to be carried out using automation.

The Worry Barometer shows a high level of national pride among respondents. Does this make you happy?

Of course. I am particularly pleased that this is also true for the next generation, as the Credit Suisse Youth Barometer has clearly demonstrated over the past year [see Bulletin 3/2016, ed. note]. Young people travel a lot and they understand how good we have it here. However, there is also a flip side: There is a risk of tunnel vision, that we will only look out for ourselves and forget those who are less fortunate.

The idea that democracy is one of Switzerland's strengths has lost significance in recent years. Why?

The system works. There is no doubt about it. But (non-)implementation of the mass immigration initiative was certainly not good for people's confidence and trust in democracy. 

Our federal system is a success because it means no one has to give up his or her identity.

Nevertheless, confidence in Swiss politics is very high and almost unparalleled internationally.

Indeed, our system is based on a high level of transparency, regular elections and referendums, and close proximity to citizens. We have a part-time parliament and it is not unusual to meet federal councilors on the train. There is no political bubble or caste in Switzerland. The people realize this.

As a politician in a bilingual canton, you are particularly aware of the Röstigraben, the line between French speakers and German speakers. What do you think are the greatest challenges in terms of national cohesion?

As a French speaker, I am in the majority in the canton of Fribourg, but in the minority on the National Council. This has an impact and shows that you should never be arrogant. Minorities must always be respected – as you may be one yourself one day! Our federal system is a success because it means no one has to give up his or her identity. The great diversity of our confederation is an opportunity; in an increasingly globalized world, Switzerland is more modern than ever.

You are the new president of the National Council and thus the Swiss "leader." What is your goal while in this office?

The motto of my year in office will be proximity to and service on behalf of the people. The common theme of my political views has always been to work on behalf of the middle class and national cohesion. I want us to better be able to live together again – that has not always been the case in recent years. The president of the National Council may be one of the highest offices in the country, but the holder of this office has no real power. The aim of this office is not for the holder of it to gain personally, but rather simply to give something back to the people.