The Swiss foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, says Switzerland can be justly proud of its multicultural society.
In an interview on the sidelines of this year’s Locarno film festival, she told swissinfo that the delicate balances in this country still have to be carefully looked after.
She also explained her thinking on minorities and on the fundamentals of Swiss foreign policy.
swissinfo: What is your view on how Switzerland looks after its minorities, especially the Italian-speaking one south of the Alps?
Micheline Calmy-Rey: I find nothing that gives real cause for concern in Switzerland, which is not perhaps the case for minorities in many other parts of the world. We have every reason to be proud of our historic model of cooperation among communities of different cultures.
Federalism guarantees cultural and political expression, particularly when there are plenty of “minority” features involved.
For example, canton Ticino, although not embracing all of Italian-speaking Switzerland, is a political force. It airs its point of view and defends its interests both as a canton and through its representatives in parliament.
As someone from Geneva, I have never had the feeling of belonging to a dominated population. Having said that, majority groups are not averse to trying to impose their will and they have to be made conscious of their responsibility in preserving our political way of life.
Admiration from abroad and the fate of communities struggling to make their voices heard should be further incentives for us.
swissinfo: You are here in Locarno, a stone’s throw away from Italy, a country with which Bern has not always had easy relations, particularly concerning transport and judicial aid. Are these problems caused by a lack of understanding?
M.C-R.: In foreign relations, it is quite normal to have friction among neighbouring states.
We have a high degree of mutual understanding with Italy – we share a language and for centuries have had economic, social and cultural relations. Switzerland’s closer ties with the EU, through bilateral accords – which includes the free movement of people – will bring Switzerland and Italy even closer together.
This process might be difficult but it is important that cross-border cooperation functions as best it can. For Ticino and for the whole of Switzerland, the proximity of Piedmont and Lombardy – a region whose domestic product exceeds that of some EU member states – counts for a lot.
swissinfo: The government’s spending cuts are affecting the outlying areas of Switzerland. Could they harm national cohesion, which has often been put to the test?
M.C-R.: The austerity measures decided so far are very harsh. I feel the impact in my own ministry.
One has to be careful that budget cuts do not threaten continuity and therefore the effectiveness of long-term policies, whether in international relations or outlying areas or social policies.
The cuts affecting transport infrastructure, for example, are going to affect outlying regions – they will remain cut off for longer than had been hoped.
Other economic measures, like giving up the law on languages, can also sow seeds of doubt. It has to be made clear that the sacrifices are shared equitably throughout the country to avoid a situation in which some parts of Switzerland feel discriminated against.
swissinfo: In a very unstable international context, do you think that a feeling of insecurity could disturb the internal balance of a country, for example the relations between the cantons and the confederation?
M.C-R.: I think feelings of insecurity are normal in any society. But if they become too intense in a democracy, they could threaten freedom. Focusing on certain kinds of danger could be political manipulation, and that is certainly one way of creating changes in the balance of power.
In Switzerland we must, for example, take care not to blow the asylum issue out of proportion. As for relations between the cantons and the confederation, I think history has shown that threats to the security of Switzerland have rather tended to cement them.
swissinfo: How can Switzerland's experience of reconciling cultural differences help in peace processes and the resolution of conflicts in the world?
M.C-R.: It is what we do with our experience that counts. We can, and do, suggest that Swiss experts participate in writing constitutions. We also, for example, assist in preparing elections in multi-ethnic societies after conflicts have ended.
Switzerland and its representatives are respected partners for their role in organising international conferences or negotiations aimed at preventing or resolving conflicts. The reason for this is because we are an example of a society in which cultural differences do not provoke tensions beyond those that already exist.
But above all, our history – with its traditions of avoiding war and the protection of human rights – helps us to be credible when we discuss these subjects with countries that have a problem with them.
Our experience is the basis of an active and committed foreign policy in favour of peace and human rights.
swissinfo-interview: Françoise Gehring
Micheline Calmy-Rey was born on July 8, 1945, at Chermignon in canton Valais.
She was head of a book distribution company for 20 years.
Calmy-Rey joined the Social Democratic Party in 1979.
She became head of finances in canton Geneva in 1998, after serving as a member of the Geneva parliament.
Elected to the federal government on December 4, 2002, Calmy-Rey took over the foreign ministry.
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