Expo wins cash reprieve

Expo.02 has gone over the budget and now faces a crucial vote in parliament Keystone

Switzerland's national exhibition, Expo.02, has been pulled back from the brink of bankruptcy, after a crucial vote in parliament.

This content was published on March 6, 2002 - 13:25

The House of Representatives on Wednesday approved an additional credit package worth SFr120 million ($71 million). The Senate has still to approve the credit, but observers say it is seen as a done deal.

There had been fears that one of the main political parties, the Christian Democrats, would derail the project by rejecting the additional funding.

The crisis is the latest in series of problems in the run up to exhibition. Difficulties over the funding and management emerged in the planning stage, and led to the postponement of the exhibition from 2001 to this year.

The federal government was initially expected to provide SFr130 million in funding and a deficit guarantee of SFr20 million towards the national exhibition. Under the plan, the business community was to stump up the bulk of SFr800 million.

Lukewarm response from business

But despite several adjustments to the project, Expo.02 failed to impress the private sector, which is now only expected to contribute about SFr330 million.

To keep the project alive, the government has been forced to make up the shortfall, which has grown as the project has gone over budget. Ultimately, the cost to the public purse is expected to be in the region of SFr838 million.

Jean-Martin Büttner, political correspondent for the liberal Zurich-based Tagesanzeiger newspaper, believes the lukewarm response from business is symptomatic of the globalisation process.

"The business community is not really interested in Switzerland. For them the country is just a nice location where they like to live and perhaps have their headquarters."

Plagued by problems

Büttner believes Expo.02 started off on the wrong footing in the middle of the 1990s: "The project was not planned properly in the first place. It was a basic idea by a group of architects, but the financing was not clear at all [and] the government was not really interested to finding out whether business was ready to contribute financially."

However, he says projects on the scale of Expo.02 have usually been criticised in the planning stages, even though they are usually declared a success later on.

Büttner points out that a previous national exhibition in the city of Lausanne in 1964 was confronted with similar criticism and funding problems and was later hailed a milestone in recent Swiss history.

Political posturing

Observers don't expect the latest controversy to derail Expo.02. They see the dispute as political posturing and are convinced that the additional credit will ultimately be passed by parliament.

Indeed, Büttner believes Expo.02 will be a big success and put Switzerland on the map as a country that is able to stage an interesting and modern exhibition.

"Everybody is moaning and criticising the financing, the management and the politicians. But when the event finally happens everybody will be happy and say: we knew it all along that it would work out fine."

He says the story of Expo.02 is typical of Switzerland, because the Swiss tend to be sceptical, full of self-criticism and afraid to take risks.

The organisers say they have sold more than one million tickets for Expo.02, which is due to open on to the public on May 15.

The exhibition is scheduled to take place at four different sites on the border between the German- and French-speaking regions of the country.

The organisers expect up to five million people to visit the venues on Lakes Neuchâtel, Biel and Murten between May and October. Expo.02 is intended as a showcase for Switzerland and festival of a multi-cultural country.

by Urs Geiser

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