Deiss seeks to expand global role for Switzerland

Joseph Deiss outlines the tasks ahead during an interview with swissinfo

Switzerland’s president for 2004 says he wants to strengthen Switzerland’s role on the world stage and promote economic growth.

This content was published on January 1, 2004 minutes

In an interview with swissinfo, Joseph Deiss said he also wanted to encourage dialogue between members of government, as well as among the Swiss people.

The economics minister, who is a Christian Democrat, takes on the country’s rotating presidency after one of the most eventful years in Swiss politics.

December saw the first shake-up in the composition of the seven-strong cabinet in 44 years, with the new president’s party colleague, Ruth Metzler, losing her seat.

Her place was taken by Christoph Blocher, a hardliner from the rightwing Swiss People’s Party, which now has two cabinet members.

Blocher, a thorn in the side of the previous government, has pledged to observe the cabinet “collegiality” principle of joint decision-making.

swissinfo: You are taking the post of president one year earlier than expected due to the fact that your party colleague, the former justice minister, Ruth Metzler, was voted out in the cabinet elections on December 10. Are you still pleased?

Joseph Deiss: I am sorry to have lost an outstanding colleague, and her being unseated really affected me. However, I am prepared to take on the job as Swiss president and I will do so with much joy and determination.

swissinfo: As president, you are taking on the role of a mediator in a cabinet containing some strong personalities. Aren't you worried that there will be more squabbling than consensus?

J.D.: We'll have to wait and see what's going to happen rather than just expect the worst. However, it is true that political extremes have hardened and finding consensus might be more difficult.

I hope we will have more dialogue and consensus in the New Year and that there will be collegiality in the cabinet. As Swiss president, I will try to find solutions that are acceptable to all and which can be implemented.

swissinfo: What will you focus on during your presidency?

J.D.: I want to focus on domestic policies and promote collegiality within the cabinet. I also want to promote dialogue among the Swiss people.

Another one of my priorities is equal rights. We have to keep building on what we have already achieved and give everybody a chance – that is our job as politicians. On the other hand, we also have to encourage the Swiss people to take this chance – and that is up to them.

swissinfo: What message do you want to send to other nations – and to the Swiss living abroad?

J.D.: One message is that Switzerland is prepared to improve international economic relations in the framework of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the European Union and other bodies – and this is in our interest as well as in the interest of our partners.

Furthermore, Switzerland should continue to fight for its values and contribute to global peace and human rights.

As far as the Swiss abroad are concerned - and they have always been one of my priorities, especially when I was foreign minister - they should know that we count on them and look out for them. I would also like to encourage them to get more involved in Swiss political life.

swissinfo: This year we have seen terrorist alerts, tensions in Iran and North Korea, and an unstable situation in Afghanistan – how do you feel about the current global situation?

J.D.: This year we have also had the war in Iraq. I am confident that we will get over it but we’ll have to wait and see.

I think that Switzerland should continue to contribute to world peace. We have done a lot in Sudan and we are present in Afghanistan, Colombia and Iraq and have supported a peace initiative in the Middle East. We play a visible role in the United Nations. Switzerland’s efforts in the field of international security are pretty impressive.

swissinfo: You are in favour of Switzerland joining the European Union. After the cabinet reshuffle, do you think this is still an option?

J.D.: I support the policies of the cabinet, which has always been in favour of EU membership. However, I am also in favour of pragmatism. Bilateral treaties with the EU are in place and we are currently working on new ones, a task which isn't always easy.

However, we have to keep our final goal in mind.

swissinfo: Many people are concerned about unemployment. As economics minister, how are you planning to boost the economy?

J.D.: We are counting on economic growth and this is one of the cabinet's major goals. The economics ministry has to deal with a broad range of issues, including professional training, research, innovation, finance and competition. We also want to make foreign markets more accessible for Swiss firms.

Our long-term goal is to make Switzerland more competitive, but that does not stop us from tackling the current economic situation. And to do that, all necessary measures are in place - thanks to action taken by the Swiss National Bank and in setting budgets [parliament recently approved record spending cuts].

The signals for economic recovery look pretty promising. We expect to reach an economic growth of 1.5 per cent in 2004.

swissinfo: Cutting budgets and boosting the economy – isn’t this a contradiction in terms?

J.D.: Reorganising our finances is one condition for economic growth. It may look controversial in the short term but I think this will be the only way to achieve healthy finances in the long run.

swissinfo: The two new cabinet members, Christoph Blocher of the Swiss People's Party and Hans-Rudolf Merz of the Radical Party, are both businessmen. Could this spell the end of Switzerland's social welfare system?

J.D.: I hope not. Switzerland uses the system of a free market economy, which means we are in favour of competition.

But we also think that the market needs the government, especially small companies. For this reason we have a good social welfare system in place and we want to keep this system.

Another important goal of the cabinet is to solve problems concerning the social welfare system - pensions, health insurance and invalidity benefit - and to guarantee their security and stability, something that is indirectly linked to economic growth.

swissinfo-interview: Marzio Pescia and Gaby Ochsenbein

Key facts

Joseph Deiss biography:
Born on January 18, 1946 in Fribourg.
Educated at the universities of Fribourg and Cambridge before becoming a career academic in economics.
1981: Enters politics as Christian Democratic Party representative in canton Fribourg.
1982 to 1996: Mayor of Barberêche.
1991: Elected to the Swiss parliament.
1999: Elected to the Swiss cabinet; takes up post as foreign minister.
2003: Changes portfolio and becomes economics minister.
2004: Takes up ceremonial post of Swiss president.

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