Farmers are the most-represented group in the Swiss legislature, and the extent of their influence has once again come to light in the latest debates over farm subsidies. (SRF/swissinfo.ch)
Twenty-six members – or 13% – of the House of Representatives are farmers or work in the agricultural sector. Overall, only 3.5% of Switzerland’s working population falls into that category.
The presence of farmers is distributed across almost all parties. As a consequence of this disproportionate representation, policy-making involving agriculture is strongly influenced by this group.
Over the past few weeks, a debate over whether to cut farm subsidies in next year’s budget demonstrated the power held by the farm coalition in both chambers of parliament, especially the House.
In the face of fewer tax revenues, cabinet suggested that parliament cut direct payments to farmers by CHF128 million ($132.5 million) next year. However, parliament ended up negating most of those cuts, bringing the level of subsidies to what it was in 2014: a total of CHF2.8 billion.
And the House also suggested increasing specific subsidies for crop aid and export by an additional CHF23 billion in total. The Senate did not agree with those increases, however.
Eventually, in committee, the two houses agreed that export subsidies would stay at cabinet’s and the Senate’s recommended level of CHF70 million while crop aid subsidies would increase by CHF6 million – a compromise between the Senate’s desired increase of CHF1 million and the House’s CHF11.1 million.
Politicians arguing against subsidy cuts pointed out that farmers had been promised a certain amount of support in the agriculture legislation for 2014 – 2017 that could not now be taken away.
“Farmers did not get what was due to them in the cabinet’s budget suggestion,“ said Thomas Hefti, a senator from canton Glarus representing the centre-right Radicals.
Those in favour of reducing agricultural subsidies argued that farmers need to shoulder part of the burden of national budget cuts.
Barbara Gysi of the centre-left Social Democrats spoke of a “power play“ on the part of the farm lobby, stating that their generous subsidy recommendations would “melt away“ the structural balance in the federal budget to the tune of CHF56 million.
Anita Fetz, also of the Social Democrats, emerged as the only defender in the Senate of cabinet’s suggested budget cuts, arguing that farm families‘ financial situations are not nearly as dire as the farm lobby makes them out to be. However, that chamber ultimately voted more generously in favour of farm subsidies, bringing its budget recommendation in line with the House of Representatives.
Earlier in the budget debate, members of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party had suggested cutting the Swiss development aid budget by CHF99 million and giving that money to farmers instead.
That suggestion ultimately failed in both houses of parliament, however.
(Text by Veronica DeVore)