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‘We’re not the only EU sceptics’

Leery of the EU: Lukas Reimann (left) Keystone

With 31-year-old Lukas Reimann as president, the Campaign for an Independent and Neutral Switzerland is seeing a generation change. Reimann tells that the conservative pressure group is “more important than ever”.

Switzerland is at an important strategic point regarding its relations with the European Union: by 2016 Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter wants to present voters with an agreement that should address the regulation of institutional questions – a stated government goal.

Central issues are the automatic transfer of EU law and the sovereignty of the European Court of Justice in the case of a dispute. Reimann, who represents the rightwing Swiss People’s Party in the House of Representatives, says this referendum is “highly dangerous” for Switzerland.

What Reimann calls “creeping EU entry” has inspired a prominent colleague to retire from parliament to focus on keeping Switzerland out of the EU. Christoph Blocher, the 73-year-old figurehead of the People’s Party and billionaire co-founder of the Campaign for an Independent and Neutral Switzerland, said he would leave his post as a representative this month in order to concentrate on the No campaign.

Lukas Reimann, 31, was born in Aarau, canton Aargau. He is a lawyer and member of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party for St Gallen.

In 2007, he entered the House of Representatives as its youngest member. He has been on the board of the Campaign for an Independent and Neutral Switzerland since he was 17.

In parliament he has taken mostly rightwing positions and has been a critic of Islam, being a member of the committee that launched the initiative calling for a ban on the construction of minarets in Switzerland. It passed in a nationwide vote in 2009.

He attracted attention in April  2014 when he was one of six People’s Party politicians who made a controversial “private” visit to Iran.

On May 7, 2014, the House of Representatives rejected Reimann’s proposal for the creation of a reporting office for government corruption. Supported by the political left, the bill was rejected by his own fraction.

Reimann also took a stance against a gas fracking project in the Lake Constance region, planned by a British company. You have said you want to attract more young people to your group. How do you intend to do this?

Lukas Reimann: Since the change of president [when Reimann took over in late April] more than 100 people have joined, many of them young. We represent values shared by many young people, so we have to communicate that correspondingly. That’s why we not only have a presence on Twitter and Facebook but also visit schools. How do you characterise the organisation?

L.R.: For me it’s a popular movement which successful Switzerland is experiencing and wants to experience further. It works to protect and preserve all aspects that have made the country strong: direct democracy, freedom, independence and neutrality. Along with the People’s Party, the group was the big winner of the February 9 vote to limit EU immigration. Has that been reflected in membership numbers?

L.R.: We already saw countless new members during the campaign and then right after the victory. This year we have seen a positive trend. This is a motivation and it speaks for our work. Have you set a membership target?

L.R.: In Norway, one in ten people belongs to “Nei til EU”, to some degree the Norwegian equivalent of our group. If a tenth of the Swiss population joined us, we’d be the nation’s strongest political force. (laughs) How do you see the February 9 vote: a warning shot from voters to the cabinet not to get too close to Brussels, or a turning point on the bilateral way?

L.R.: It was primarily a vote for self-determination – nothing more and nothing less. The people want to be able to decide for themselves on who they let into the country and who they don’t. The curb on immigration is now a constitutional requirement. Its implementation has top priority, even if this has political consequences for Switzerland with Europe. The acceptance – by 50.3% of voters – of immigration limits was loudly cheered by EU sceptics within Europe. Could you feel that directly in your group? Did EU critics get in touch?

L.R.: Not directly. But we’ve been well connected within Europe for many years. For a long time I was on the board of TEAM, the European Alliance of EU-critical Movements, which includes the People’s Movement against the EU from Denmark and UKIP from Britain. But I’d like to stress that no rightwing extremist groups are members. Forecasts suggest EU sceptics will make gains in elections for the EU parliament on May 25. If this is the case, will your group work for closer cooperation between like-minded groups within Europe?

L.R.: First and foremost our group must act for Switzerland. But we follow developments in Europe very closely. I have great hopes for these elections, namely that EU-sceptic camps gain in strength – both on the political left and right.

For us, it’s important to see that we’re not the only EU sceptics. For the others, it’s important to see that there’s a viable alternative outside the EU. You have mentioned distancing anti-EU extremists. Where does your group draw the line?

L.R.: The Campaign for an Independent and Neutral Switzerland is a democratic organisation which puts into practice the fundamental rights documented in the constitution. Rightwing extremists who want to do away with these have no place in our organisation. At your members’ general meeting you were given the task of working out a popular initiative on the “regaining of autonomy” in Switzerland. What is the main thrust of the contents?

L.R.: We would like to present our members with several suggestions at an extraordinary general assembly in September or October. These could be the replacement of bilateral treaties with a free-trade agreement with the EU, withdrawing from the Schengen Agreement, abandoning efforts to join the EU, the constitutional strengthening of neutrality or the priority of putting national law before international law. Blocher said the No campaign should be funded with CHF4-5 million ($4.5-5.5 million) – if necessary from his own pocket. Has it already been decided how much will go towards your group and what the money will be spent on?

L.R.: There isn’t a campaign budget yet. First the preparatory work must be carried out. The group’s board will then decide. Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter has elevated the referendum on the targeted framework agreement – which the Swiss should vote on by 2016 at the latest – to a sort of “super-referendum”. Are you already rubbing your hands?

L.R.: We’re not looking forward to this referendum at all, for it is highly dangerous for Switzerland. Were Switzerland to align itself so closely with the EU, we would have to accept the decisions of foreign judges. And it’s clear that there would be disagreements over the interpretation of treaties. This is why we talk of a creeping EU entry, which such a framework agreement would bring. We’re already doing a lot of preparation because we can’t lose this referendum.

The Campaign for an Independent and Neutral Switzerland works for the protection of direct democracy, self-determination and the complete and permanent neutrality of Switzerland.

It also actively opposes any convergence between Switzerland and the EU.

The group was founded in 1986 after 75% of voters rejected joining the United Nations. One co-founder was Christoph Blocher, the billionaire figurehead of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party.

It currently has 30,100 members and 10,100 patrons and sympathisers. At the end of 2004 it had 45,000 members.

In recent years, it has lost political power: in 2012, more than 75% of voters rejected its initiative “international treaties before the people”.

Lukas Reimann took over the presidency in April 2014 from 52-year-old Pirmin Schwander, who himself had taken over from Blocher in 2004. Schwander cited health reasons.

(Translated from German by Thomas Stephens)

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