Ignazio Cassis: "There's no insurance for prosperity."
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Ignazio Cassis: "There's no insurance for prosperity."

Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis is concerned about Switzerland's position as a business location, would like to cure the Swiss of their perfectionism and supports bilateral agreements.

Manuel Rybach: Councillor Cassis, Swiss voters view pensions, health care and health insurance, and migration as the nation's most pressing problems. What do you make of these concerns?

Ignazio Cassis: They are the classic worries of people living in rich countries. Migration, unemployment, and retirement provision all relate to things our society holds dear: security, independence, and securing our prosperity. What I find interesting is that health care and health insurance have become more of a hot-button issue even though the debate over rising health insurance premiums has been ongoing for several years at the same level of intensity.

Why do you think that is the case?

Clearly, it's a matter of perspective and context. In the last several years, people seem to have been more concerned with other issues like migration, refugees, and unemployment than with health care. But migration has decreased and unemployment is now low.

Because of our prosperity, we Swiss suffer from perfectionism

Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis

What do you consider the country's most pressing problems?

I do worry about Switzerland's position as a business location. We can't simply assume that our prosperity is a divine right. We must understand that there's no insurance for prosperity. We are all responsible for maintaining it – each and every one of us.

What factors are most critical for Switzerland's future?

We need to keep three key points in mind. We need open markets. We need to expect and promote individual initiative. And we need innovation. That last point sounds easy but requires a real change in our thinking. Because of our prosperity, we Swiss suffer from perfectionism. On the other hand, innovation entails taking risks and making mistakes. So, we have to develop a culture that allows that – that allows people to take risks and make mistakes and learn and grow from them.

Europe ranks seventh on the Worry Barometer. While 40 percent of voters in the years between 1985 and 1990 were concerned about the EU, bilateral agreements, and integration, only 22 percent are today. Are Swiss voters underestimating the importance of our relationships with the EU?

I don't think so. I get the sense that people are simply more relaxed about it. A year ago, in the run-up to the Federal Council elections, there was a great deal of commotion about "foreign judges" and the "death of direct democracy." Since then, people have come to understand what it's really about – namely, regulating market access and not killing democracy as some were claiming. Maybe the outreach efforts that business groups started this year in collaboration with policymakers are working.

The survey took place in the summer of 2018. When they were asked what kind of relationship Switzerland should have with the EU in the future, 65 percent of respondents said that they would like to keep the bilateral agreements. In addition, 82 percent consider the bilateral agreements important or even very important. How do you see Switzerland's future relationship with the EU?

Let's consider what Switzerland wants to gain from the bilateral agreements. We want to obtain the best possible access to the EU's single market while giving up as little of our sovereignty as possible. That covers two fundamental objectives of our constitution: prosperity and independence. If we deem the bilateral agreements to be the right path forward in the future, we will also need the EU to be on board. It takes two to make a marriage work. We are currently working within the institutional framework to develop solutions – and, like the EU, we are trying to ensure that Switzerland gets the best deal possible.

More than half of the survey's respondents feel that strengthening the trade ties with large countries like China or the US could be enough to make up for the loss should market access to the EU deteriorate for the Swiss economy. Is that realistic?

That could theoretically be possible, but in actuality it would take a lot of time. Companies don't change their business models or their customers that quickly. Besides, I don't want to merely "make up" lost business – that isn't ambitious enough. I want us to grow our trade with the EU and with other countries. If we can do that, Switzerland will remain a leader. To accomplish that, we will need to maintain and cultivate the majority of our trade relations with the EU for the decades ahead. Especially those with our immediate neighbors. We have to be careful not to underestimate their importance.

In what way?

I'll give you three examples. Our trade with neighboring regions is almost one-quarter more than with all of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) combined. Our current trade volume with Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria alone is almost one-quarter larger than the volume with all of China. And we trade more with the Lombardy region of Italy than we do with Japan. Of course, we also want to grow in new markets. But it would be unrealistic to think that we could simply swap out our trade with the EU market for a different, faraway trading partner at the drop of a hat. 

Like the EU, we are trying to ensure that Switzerland gets the best deal possible

Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis

The survey showed that 69 percent of voters would like to see their government take a more aggressive stance toward other countries. What do you make of that?

I see it as an appeal to the Swiss government to be more assertive, to state more clearly that our sovereignty and our borders are important. We haven't seen that attitude among voters for quite some time but it is gradually becoming more mainstream again across Europe. It's important to have a certain level of self-confidence. But at the same time, we have to be wary of hubris. We are what we are. That is, we are 8.5 million people in the heart of Europe, surrounded by the EU. We are diplomatically and economically important but we are not a global military power. So, we need functioning, multilateral treaties.

You have been working on the Vision 2028 foreign policy. Where are we headed?

As I mentioned earlier, we're seeing the pendulum swing back from globalization towards more protectionism – and borders are becoming more important again. The result is a multipolar world with increased uncertainty and a variety of different players. For us, that means we have to be flexible and smart – in our negotiations with all countries and in offering our services as negotiators. Increased polarization means increased risk of tensions. And we Swiss are experts at resolving tensions. Increased polarization could also make travel more cumbersome again, requiring more passport checks, visas, and such. That in turn will mean more work for our consulates – despite the benefits of digitalization. Each year, the Swiss log 12.5 million non-business trips outside the country. And that is not counting the 800,000 or so Swiss citizens living abroad.

In terms of policy, survey participants are sending mixed signals. On the one hand, their confidence in political institutions is exceptionally high. On the other, there appears to be a general sense that policies and policymakers are failing us. In 2017, 24 percent felt that policies often fail, but 45 percent say so today.

I don't see that as contradictory. The institutions are the infrastructure, and policy is the output. Our mechanisms work well, even in times of crisis. But the results – the decisions that are made within those mechanisms – are increasingly driven by uncertainty. Stagnant prosperity, increasing global conflict and terror attacks in Europe are all issues that have arisen. They can give us a sense that policies have failed. We find ourselves in a difficult situation, feeling we have less control over our own destiny than we did twenty years ago.

The Swiss are generally very optimistic about the future. Only 7 percent feel that we will be worse off in a decade's time. Do you share this optimism?

Yes, because it is justified. Our society and economy stand on a very sound footing. As a member of the government, I consider this the best news of all from the survey. It reflects Switzerland's stability and the strong general sense of trust that our people have in our country.

You went to medical school and then worked in internal medicine. What can medicine teach us about politics?

The German pathologist and politician Rudolf Virchow once said, "Politics is nothing else but medicine on a large scale." And I think he is right. Medical scientists and politicians are very similar. Their work centers on people and all of their contradictions, hopes, and fears. I find it more surprising that I am only the second physician to serve on the Federal Council. The first was Adolf Deucher, from Thurgau. He was elected in the late 19th century and remained in office for nearly 30 years. That's quite a standard to live up to (laughs).