On the value of pensioners living abroad

Petra Gössi: “We only wanted to draw attention to the sore spots of the pensions reform". Keystone

This content was published on June 27, 2017

The centre-right Radical Party is considering cuts to old age pensions for those living outside Switzerland. Reactions have been furious and plentiful. Many are wondering, what was party leader Petra Gössi thinking? 

The Radical Party prides itself on its values and liberalism, says Gössi. Liberal means having freedom to express yourself and flourish as best as you can. And when you are doing well, everyone is doing well. This also goes for the state so that it is then strong enough to care for the weak. This concept of dynamics has helped the Radicals grow in Switzerland, and the party has been an integral part of Swiss history. The Radicals took care of the strong, while, on the opposite end of the scale, the left-wing Social Democratic Party took care of the weak. The Social Democrats pride themselves on their values and solidarity.

The economy provided the dynamics, and solidarity played its role. It was a fair tug-of-war, resulting in excellent solutions. One of the best: the Swiss old age pension scheme.

The way Switzerland was

  • We created a balance between rich and poor, because we realised that peace brought the country wealth. This resulted in the financial equalisation fund [solidarity system in which wealthier cantons share their income with less well-off peers], supplementary benefits and progressive taxation – and of course, direct democracy.
  • We created a balance between money and value, because we realised that not everything that had a value yielded something in return. From this came subsidies for agriculture, mountain regions, culture and Romansh, the minority Latin-based language.
  • We created a balance between the sexes, because we realised that we were only making ourselves weaker by not being on an equal footing. This resulted in women getting the vote – albeit rather late – and making inroads into the Swiss cabinet and, eventually, everywhere else.
  • We created a balance between the generations, because we realised that old age is no longer the responsibility of the family, but of the community as a whole. This is why we have the old age pension scheme. Those who worked paid into this. At the same time, a pact between the generations ensured that those who had contributed would receive a pension after retirement.

The Swiss strove and fought over these equality measures knowing that they would never be perfect. And what was too much for the Radicals was always too little for the Social Democrats. But in the middle of all this, where the majority was, the level playing field always got the vote. Democracy vouched for this.

These were our values

In the centre was the human, the citizen, and everyone together. This was how it was during the last century.

Now the Radical Party is saying that a pensioner who is not a consumer in Switzerland and doesn’t pay taxes here doesn’t bring the country any added value. A democratic party has evaluated people in their twilight years on an economic basis, measured their usefulness and come to the conclusion that pensioners living abroad are of no value to us; they are a cost factor and should therefore get less.

  • Firstly, this is an attack on the assets of the Swiss abroad. Those who have paid into a pension plan should indeed get a pension, as per the generational pact. The Swiss constitution also sets this out. The generational pact and the constitution have been considered reliable until now.
  • Secondly, and Gössi didn’t consider this: If you put a value on someone drawing his pension, you also put a value on a Swiss citizen – on a human being, and a senior at that. This is the main reason why Gössi’s words have caused such an uproar. It may have been thoughtless, but it is the first time that a Swiss politician or party has spoken about their parents’ generation in such a hurtful way.
  • Thirdly, never before have the 775,000 Swiss citizens abroad been devalued to such an extent.

Swiss abroad are furious

For many Swiss abroad, a Swiss pension is very important for their existence. It’s not by chance that it is called the first pillar [of the pension scheme]. Some pay into it not because they have to, but because they feel they should as Swiss citizens. And because they believe that the generational pact will still apply when they are old. All of them have, by the way, turned their backs on supplementary benefits, not necessarily by choice, but driven by the pioneering spirit that you need abroad. Exile brings risks, including poverty, and this is what they accept. Many Swiss abroad save their home country a lot of money in this way. But many also see themselves as pioneers from a great country, and they bring the Swiss values of dynamism, solidarity and reliability around the world.

The Radical Party’s mistake

“We only wanted to draw attention to the sore spots of the pensions reform,” Gössi has said, defending her position. But she has also succeeded in drawing attention to a sore spot in this century’s policy: that you can, in the meantime, quite quickly betray rather a lot of our consensus system for just a hint of dynamism. Solidarity and reliability are not the values of the Radical Party’s opponents – they are the values of Switzerland.

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