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Couchepin seeks a more open Switzerland

Pascal Couchepin talking to swissinfo's Imogen Foulkes (left) and Olivier Pauchard

(swissinfo C Helmle)

Pascal Couchepin, the new Swiss president for 2003, is convinced that Switzerland must join the European Union.

In an exclusive interview with swissinfo's Imogen Foulkes and Olivier Pauchard, Couchepin said the journey to Brussels would be a long, slow process.

Couchepin takes over the presidency for the first time after a year in which Swiss relations with the European Union were strained over the issue of banking secrecy.

Despite threats of sanctions, Switzerland persisted in its refusal to hand over information concerning accounts held by EU citizens in Swiss banks. It did however propose a 35 per cent withholding tax on the savings income from these accounts.

Having failed to agree on how to combat tax evasion, the Union's finance ministers decided in early December to put the issue back on the table in 2003.

Couchepin is also taking over the helm less than two months after the Swiss narrowly turned down a proposal to tighten the country's asylum laws. A proposal put forward by the rightwing Swiss People's Party was accepted by nearly one in two voters.

The concerns surrounding the large foreign community in Switzerland will be back on the table this year, with the planned revision of the citizenship law.

swissinfo: How important is the role of Swiss President (given that it rotates every year among the seven members of cabinet)?

Pascal Couchepin: It is an important role because the president of the confederation presides over the sessions of the Swiss government so he has to maintain a good atmosphere among the members of the government.

He also has more representative roles than the average member of the government. I shall visit friendly countries and also welcome visitors from abroad, with my colleagues, but as president of the confederation, who has a first role in this case.

What are your goals in 2003?

My main goal, which is one shared by all Swiss presidents, is to reinforce national unity and understanding between linguistic regions, and to prevent social conflicts from getting out of hand - to ensure the Swiss have benevolent attitude towards one another. If a Swiss has a different opinion, he or she isn't an enemy but at worst a political adversary.

Going back to linguistic differences, people abroad are surprised to hear that there are four national languages in Switzerland. What do you think of language education, and in particular of the push to teach English at an early age?

It's wrong to think the Swiss speak two or three languages. Most people only speak one. Switzerland is not a country where everybody speaks a few different languages. It is a country where different languages live side by side. That's the difference. People's knowledge of other languages is often no better than it is in countries where only one language is spoken.

As to English, it's probably better to enjoy learning English than being forced to learn another national language. On the other hand, if English is the first [foreign] language taught in Switzerland, the second must be a national one.

When other countries look at Switzerland, it is always noted is that this country in the heart of Europe is not a member of the European Union. How do you see relations with the EU and the progression towards membership?

In recent years, I have visited many countries, and many presidents and ministers have asked me why we are not a member of the EU. When I gave them the reasons, some of them understood and said we were right not to be in the EU, others were surprised.

So, from outside, there is not always a negative view of Switzerland because we are not a member of the EU. In my opinion, we shall and must be a member of EU.

But we have to take small steps because we have a system of direct democracy. It means that decisions about joining or not joining the EU will be put to the people through a public vote. If you want to win, it means you must solve many problems and when many partial problems are solved, you can ask the fundamental question: do you want to join?

What about the issue of banking secrecy, withholding tax, tax evasion and so on? You have had some fairly difficult discussions in Brussels about that.

We proposed a very generous solution with the withholding tax on European citizens' asset income in Switzerland. But we will not agree to suppress the banking secrecy because it is part of our view of interpreting the relations between the state and private citizens. But we are convinced that our proposition is generous and it is a good offer which can be accepted. We hope it will succeed.

During the debate before November's referendum on asylum, some people said the Swiss government had said lost control of the agenda. Does more need to be done to take control of the agenda away from perhaps the [rightwing] Swiss People's Party?

During the last months we had a campaign about the new law on asylum and it is true that we won by a very small margin. It means that very many people in Switzerland are anxious to find ways of resolving this problem.

But it is not only a problem in Switzerland - it is in every country in Europe. In Switzerland we have a specific problem because we already have a high level of foreigners - almost 20 per cent of the population is foreign.

That means a supplementary flow of foreigners could provoke bigger disturbances in a country like ours than in countries where there is only a very small foreign population. So we must be very careful and probably increase the possibilities of sending back the wrong refugees which come only to Switzerland for economic and not political reasons.

One of the reasons Switzerland has such a high proportion of foreigners is your rather strict laws on citizenship. A bill to ease citizenship restrictions is coming before parliament in 2003. Are you confident of getting that bill through?

Yes. I am convinced that this law is nothing extraordinary - it is not revolutionary. We want to allow people whose parents were born in Switzerland to automatically become Swiss. We will probably succeed but it will not be easy because it is a symbolic decision.

In addition to holding the presidency, you have just taken over a new portfolio at the interior ministry. It seems a huge load, particularly the health insurance dossier.

I hope I will remain healthy enough to shoulder this load and that my colleagues will support me. I will find out somewhere down the road if I was too ambitious, but I hope that won't be the case.

Your predecessor at the interior ministry, Ruth Dreifuss, was often harshly criticised for the way she handled the problems related to health insurance. How will you tackle these issues?

My first observation is that the Swiss health system works reasonably well. This isn't always the case in other countries, where the system is virtually bankrupt.

Swiss health insurers are generally not facing financial ruin and most of them have reserves. The quality of care is outstanding, and people have access to it - not because they are rich, but because they need care.

But the cost of the health system has risen quickly over the past few years. Our problem is how to pay for the system and that's what we have to concentrate on.

Nobody expects to be able to cut the cost of health insurance premiums. But I would like, just as most politicians in this country would, to slow down rising health costs, so that everyone has access to proper care.

Finally, do you have one particular task or goal for 2003 that you really want to achieve?

When journalists ask me that question I always give an answer that was first used by a British prime minister - Edward Heath, I think it was. He said "events, events, events". You must give answers to events, which are not foreseeable now. That is my goal for 2003, to rise to all the unexpected events which we will no doubt face - that is my greatest challenge.

swissinfo, Imogen Foulkes and Olivier Pauchard

Couchepin brief

Pascal Couchepin was born April 5, 1942 in Martigny, a town in canton Valais.

He lost his father at the age of five and was brought up by his mother and grandmother.

After studying law at the University of Lausanne, Couchepin began his political career in 1968, when he was elected to the local Martigny town executive.

He served as the town's vice-president from 1977 until 1984 when he became a president - a post he held until 1998.

Simultaneously, Couchepin held a seat in the House of Representatives from 1979 to 1998. A member of the centre-right radical party, Couchepin was elected to the Swiss cabinet on March 11 1998, taking over the post of economics minister.

On January 1, 2003 he takes over the interior ministry, as well as the rotating one-year Swiss presidency for the first time.

He is married with three children.

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