"I'm a member of the Swiss People's Party (SVP), but I'm also a European"
A voice from the political arena – Jürg Stahl, soon to be the highest-ranking Swiss official, talks about his worries, Switzerland's relationship with Europe and his wish for his year as president of the National Council: "We should all calm down."
Simon Brunner/Oliver Heer: The Swiss people are worried about unemployment, foreigners and the pension system. What do you, personally, see as the country's most pressing problems?
Jürg Stahl: I would rank them in the same order. The fact that unemployment is at the top of the list tells me that people recognize the importance of a strong, stable economy in driving Switzerland's prosperity. Personally, I view pension reform as our greatest challenge.
Worries about foreigners, as well as about refugees and the issue of asylum, seem to have declined – has the situation stabilized?
If these two topics were combined into one, it would rank at the top, even adjusting for the fact that many respondents mentioned both. But that decline in concern is obviously a good thing. It means that politicians are taking this issue more seriously. In general, the feeling seems to be that Berne isn't doing such a bad job; in most areas, people are less worried than they were. Trust in the Federal Council, the National Council and the Council of States is very high.
I view pension reform as our greatest challenge.
Particularly in rural areas, a large share of respondents (41 percent) still say that the issue of foreigners is a major concern, far more than in the cities (33 percent) and densely populated areas (35 percent). Why is that?
I lived in a city, Winterthur, for 40 years. In my elementary school class, there were ten Italians, two Turks and a girl from the former Yugoslavia, along with just seven Swiss children. Foreign cultures are nothing unusual for me. For the past eight years I have been living in a very rural area, in Brütten, a village of 1,900 people in the canton of Zurich. If we have five asylum seekers, it is noticed immediately. People respond differently than in the cities. We are shaped by our immediate environments – that's just how people are.
There has been talk recently of "two Switzerlands" – one rural, the other urban. Is that how you see it?
Depending on the phase of the moon, there might be a Rösti gap, a polenta gap, a gap between rich and poor, men and women, city and country – I think these are just passing fads. Of course, we all identify with our own patch of land and sometimes get angry with other people, or envy them. But competition is healthy; diversity is what Switzerland is all about. And when our national team wins, all of us are happy.
Contrary to expectations, only 14 percent of respondents named terrorism as one of their major concerns. How do you explain that?
After the 9/11 terror attacks, the share of respondents who expressed concern about terrorism jumped from 1 to 27 percent. I don't want to minimize the problem, but I would say that people seem to feel more secure in Switzerland.
And when our national team wins, all of us are happy.
When asked what kind of relationship Switzerland should have with the EU in the future, 65 percent of respondents said that they would like to see the bilateral agreements continue. Last year it was only 47 percent. What do you think that means?
What I notice most of all is that only 2 percent name joining the EU as a top priority. And I'm very happy about that! Right now there is a lot of talk about whether the mass immigration initiative is compatible with our bilateral agreements – but although I'm a member of the Swiss People's Party, I'm also a European. We need to clarify our relationships with our neighbors, no question. This is how I interpret these responses: People want politicians to overcome their differences and get to work on this issue. I think that's a good thing.
The survey shows over and over again how much the respondents value Switzerland, how proud they are of it, and that they believe that it is better than other countries. Are the people of Switzerland entirely too enamored with themselves?
That was my first thought when I looked at the results. But the respondents are right: Our economy is doing well. We are world champions when it comes to innovation. The bottom line is that none of the countries around us exudes such a sense of security. And this state of affairs wasn't just handed to us on a platter; we had to work for it.
To what extent is "Swissness" a fad?
When I was in school, we used to attach stickers from Bravo magazine to our denim jackets. Today it's Swiss pins – and that's no doubt a fad as well. As a sports fan, I'm convinced that right now the idea of "Swissness" also has something to do with the national football team. My generation had to wait for 26 years before the national team qualified for a major tournament. People just identify more closely with a team that is playing in an international tournament. Many of my childhood friends eventually became fans of Holland, Argentina or Italy.
You're known to be a football expert – do you still keep albums with stickers of football players?
I've filled every single Panini album since the 1974 World Cup. This year, at the time of the European Championships, I decided that sticker albums weren't a fitting pastime for a vice president, let alone the president, of the Swiss National Council. So for the first time I refrained from buying one.
We should all calm down.
One last question: What are your plans for 2017, when you take office as president of the National Council, becoming the highest-ranking Swiss official?
I'm one of those "unspectacular politicians" and proud of it. When my alarm rings in the morning, I get up and set out to do a good job. Next year will be no different. I would say two things: First, life needs to be simpler again. There are too many laws and regulations. Second, we're moving from being a trusting society to one plagued by suspicion – I don't like that. I would advise the people of Switzerland to start trusting one another again. And we should all calm down.