‘We have a hand of aces!’

The People’s Party defines itself as "right politicised, liberal-conservative" Keystone

With an eye towards the Swiss parliamentary elections in autumn 2015 and a new legislature, the conservative right Swiss People’s Party is also laying claim to a leading role in economic matters. Party President Toni Brunner spoke to about deregulation, immigration and Swiss independence from the EU.

This content was published on May 5, 2015 - 15:41

Brunner says the People’s Party has invited the centre-right parties to endorse its deregulation pact, which is aimed at cushioning the shock the soaring Swiss franc has inflicted on the country’s heavily export-dependent economy.

The core themes of immigration and Swiss independence from the EU − addressed in recent elections − have made the People’s Party the leading political party in terms of electoral strength. In 2007 the People’s Party garnered 29% of the votes, while in both 2003 and 2011 it just managed to achieve 27%. In the coming elections you said you’re hoping to see a marked increase in these numbers. Is reaching the 30% mark your goal?

Toni Brunner: We want to solidify and wherever possible exceed our last result. Since we already have by far the strongest party base in Switzerland, we can’t grow indefinitely. After all, we’re in a situation of free competition with other parties. But if we want an end to the current centre-left politics of the parliament and government in Switzerland, then the People’s Party has to make gains. What are the two highest priorities for your party in the next legislature?

T.B.: First, the cabinet [the ruling committee that governs Switzerland] is negotiating with the European Union on an institutional link to our country. This is about the self-perception and the self-determination of Switzerland. We want to preserve this above all. At stake is nothing less than the pillars of direct democracy in our country, the co-determination of the population, freedom, neutrality and federalism.

Second, we want an attractive environment for companies in Switzerland. This will allow us to safeguard jobs. This means in particular that we need to keep an eye on taxes and spending. Following the decision of the Swiss National Bank to remove the euro-franc minimum exchange rate, it’s important that we now finalise a pact on deregulation. Here, the People’s Party has taken the lead and with the Radical Party and the Christian Democratic Party put together a package to boost the economy. The economy is expected to welcome a reduction in regulatory pressure. But on another point, you have the economy against you. The Swiss Business Federation has urgently warned about the possible cessation of the bilateral accords with the European Union. These could be endangered by the implementation of the People’s Party initiative against mass immigration. Is the People’s Party in a clinch with regards to the Swiss economy?

T.B.: No, we’re in a dialogue with the economy. We have a popular mandate in the form of a new constitutional provision that Switzerland itself will steer and reduce immigration in the future. The way is mapped out with quotas, ceilings, and a priority for national workers.

Now it comes to the design and implementation. No one wants to put the bilateral agreements as a whole into question. But everyone is aware that the dossier on freedom of movement must be renegotiated with Brussels. There’s no other way.

Freedom of movement has systemic errors. It brings huge immigration annually from a percentage of the population and has brought us additional bureaucracy. Just think about the supporting measures. Representatives of other parties also find it important that this huge migration to Switzerland be reduced, only nothing has happened so far. Up to now, Brussels has not recognised any right to manoeuvre for the cabinet with regard to restricting the free movement of people. So a vote will have to bring clarity with reference to the continuation of the bilateral accords. Will this be “the mother of all election battles” for the People’s Party?

T.B.: Neither side wants to terminate the bilateral accords as a whole without compelling reasons. However Switzerland would have to do so if and when Brussels should not want to negotiate. But I think it’s absolutely in everyone’s interest to find a sensible solution.  

The issue of disproportionately high immigration to Switzerland is one thing that would be understood in Europe, if one were to explain what it’s about. An annual net immigration of nearly 100,000 people in a country with eight million inhabitants is simply too much.

But I’m only confident of achieving a result if the Swiss government clearly states: “We have to implement a popular mandate. If you don’t want to renegotiate, we’ll have to terminate the accords.” Does the EU want this? I doubt it. The bilateral accords are considered by the government, businesses, and parties ranging from leftwing to far into the centre-right a success factor that has enabled Switzerland withstand the consequences of the financial crisis better than its European neighbours.

T.B.: At one point you have to clear up the myth that we have to thank the free movement of people for our prosperity. As I said: No one has anything against the bilateral accords − for me these are agreements on equal terms and between equal partners. They’re necessary. But Switzerland is more cosmopolitan than simply restricting itself to doing business with European countries.

The major factor in Switzerland’s success is our unique political system of direct democracy. This also brings another way of thinking and acting to our politics, knowing that politicians cannot simply do what they want, and that the last word lies with the people.

Studies have shown that Switzerland is a leader in terms of being cosmopolitan and open to the world. You cannot quantify whether the bilateral accords and the free movement of people guarantee affluence. All the more so, as we now know that you have to be somewhat careful about predicting Gross Domestic Product growth as a success factor. In recent years, Islam been much in the news: the headscarf debate, radicalisation and Islamic terrorism. What place should Islam have in Swiss society?

T.B.: Switzerland is a country shaped by Christianity − the words “In the name of God” already appear in the preamble of the federal constitution. In our country we have tolerance towards other religions, and thus freedom of religion. In addition we have freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, shared fundamental rights, and a system in which all men are equal before the law. This requires as well that other religions and cultures adapt to our value system if they live in Switzerland and also wish to lay claim to their liberties.

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