Switzerland should not allow itself to be put under pressure by the European Union, Swiss President Ueli Maurer has told swissinfo.ch in a New Year interview.
Maurer admits he may be more “blunt” in his opinion of EU-Swiss ties than his fellow cabinet members but he is “not fundamentally different” when it comes to the will to secure the best possible bilateral accords for Switzerland.
Maurer prefers bread and beer to champagne and caviar, informal gatherings to grand celebrations. He likes to keep in shape doing cross country skiing and biking.
The 62-year-old from a farming family, who went on to be a farmers’ representative and party president of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party, oversaw the party’s rise to become the strongest vote winner in the country. In cabinet since 2009 with the defence and sports portfolio, he is the country’s new president, in office for a year in a rotating role with representative duties at home and abroad.
swissinfo.ch: You have agreed with Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter to divide foreign trips between you. By what criteria will you allocate the trips?
Ueli Maurer: I take seriously all duties that are important for Switzerland. Where it is more efficient for Switzerland for Minister Burkhalter or another member of the government to travel then they will go. It’s not about me but about the interests of Switzerland. The country must be represented by those who, depending on the occasion, carry the most weight or are in the best position.
I was also bearing in mind that the division [of travel duties] would lead to more continuity. We often hear the criticism abroad about a lack of continuity.
Father of six, Maurer was born in Zurich in 1950.
Since January 1, 2009, he has been minister for defence and sport.
Maurer was confirmed as president for 2013 by a parliamentary vote on December 5.
From 1994 to 2008, he was head of the Zurich farmers association.
He represented the Swiss People’s Party in Zurich’s cantonal parliament from 1983 to 1991.
From 1996 to 2008 he was president of the People’s Party. In this time he set up 12 new cantonal parties and 600 local branches, paving the way for the People’s Party to be established as Switzerland’s largest vote winner.end of infobox
swissinfo.ch: One of your tasks on a national level is to improve national solidarity. What concretely do you want to do there?
U.M.: There are many different interests represented in this country, but we are all citizens of the same Switzerland at the end of the day. We have to strengthen this togetherness; we also have a lot more that connects us than that separates us.
As president I have the opportunity to stress these ties at events. The Winter Olympics might be such a great Swiss project in which, independent of interests, language region or party, people are able to come together to commit to a common goal.
But we still have to be realistic. In one year as president, not much can be changed, either in Switzerland or the world. I also don’t have much negotiating room left in my schedule - the diary is already almost full.
swissinfo.ch: Recently in a speech you seemed in a roundabout way to question the bilateral accords with the EU. How do you imagine things should proceed with Switzerland and the EU?
U.M.: I think the bilateral approach is the only way. We have to take time for ourselves to pursue this bilateral approach and shouldn’t allow ourselves to be pressured. The closer the relationship to the EU, the more care has to be taken in examining the accords. In my opinion we have never been under such great time pressure that we have had to rush something through. The most important motto for me is to retain as much freedom to negotiate as possible.
I don’t think I am fundamentally different from my cabinet colleagues in this respect, because nobody wants to join the EU. They all want good agreements for Switzerland. Perhaps I have a slightly more blunt opinion. But there is no basic difference between the stance of the government and the political majority in the country.
swissinfo.ch: Exporting companies have a vital interest in the EU internal market. With your party’s immigration initiative you are bringing the free movement of people between the EU and Switzerland into play. Are you not afraid of sanctions and the possible economic consequences?
U.M.: No. In the economy, the strongest will prevail. The EU’s interests in Switzerland are just as concrete as the other way round.
Imagine, purely theoretically, that the EU would limit access to its market and that we, in response would impose limitations in the area of transport. That wouldn’t work. Those are merely hypothetical games. We are closely tied to one another and continually have to find common solutions and we will do so.
2013 Ueli Maurer (Swiss People’s Party)
2012 Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf (Conservative Democrats)
2011 Micheline Calmy-Rey (Social Democrats)
2010 Doris Leuthard (Christian Democrats)
2009 Hans-Rudolf Merz (Radical Party)
2008 Pascal Couchepin (Radical Party)
2007 Micheline Calmy-Rey (Social Democrats)
2006 Moritz Leuenberger (Social Democrats)
2005 Samuel Schmid (Swiss People’s Party)
2004 Joseph Deiss (Christian Democrats)
2003 Pascal Couchepin (Radical Party)
2002 Kaspar Villiger (Radical Party)
2001 Moritz Leuenberger (Social Democrats)
2000 Adolf Ogi (Swiss People’s Party)
1999 Ruth Dreifuss (Social Democrats)end of infobox
swissinfo.ch: Shortly after you took over the defence portfolio you said that you wanted to make the Swiss army the best army in the world. Would you still say that?
U.M.: Of course! We need the best army in the world because when an army is called into action it has to be the best.
swissinfo.ch: You are not free in shaping the army and security policy. Would you want a different army?
U.M.: In our militia system the army is part of security policy. It works when it is supported by the people. The militia system requires that we all stand behind the army and security policy.
The resources for the army are laid down for us and we have to fight more for the public perception of the army. As long as there is a trend to be publicly against the army, we have not yet reached our aim to have the best army in the world.
When two pistols go missing or a soldier drinks too much beer then there are big stories in the media and the impression is created that the whole army is in a miserable condition. When the army is targeted, people think they are going after me. But this is about 150,000 soldiers who carry out exemplary duty every year. I find that hard to take sometimes.
swissinfo.ch: The external threats to Switzerland have diminished. How far does the army have a problem of legitimacy?
U.M.: An army is the insurance premium for the worst case scenario and has legitimacy. Furthermore it costs very little, less than the sum of all obligatory motor insurance, for example.
The army has legitimacy because it is responsible for the security of the country. Switzerland is one of the richest countries in the world because of security. An essential element for this security is the army. Scaling it down would affect the security of the country in the long term and therefore the country’s wellbeing. Furthermore in case of need you cannot build up an army in a few years.
swissinfo.ch: The purchase of the Gripen fighter jets is disputed across the conservative camp. It will probably have to overcome the hurdle of a referendum. How do you plan to deal with that?
U.M.: That will be a difficult vote for the army. The question of legitimacy will then lead to debate. I think we can win the vote if we openly and transparently present what is at stake. We will explain to Swiss voters that there is no prosperity without security.
swissinfo.ch: The Swiss abroad feel neglected. How do you plan to reach out to them in your year as president?
U.M.: Unfortunately I cannot do anything concrete in particular for the Swiss abroad. I am quite realistic here. Whenever possible I support good contact with the Swiss abroad. That would be something like boosting e-voting but that will take time. Diary permitting, I could take part in the congress of the Swiss abroad but in general I don’t like to make promises that I ultimately can’t keep.
(Translated from German by Clare O’Dea), swissinfo.ch