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Leuthard puts focus on Swiss competitiveness

Leuthard wants to improve Swiss competitiveness.


The new Swiss economics minister, Doris Leuthard, tells swissinfo she has not had to reinvent the wheel since taking office on August 1 but has set her priorities.

The election in June of the then president of the Christian Democratic Party led to hopes for a breath of fresh air in the seven-member Swiss government.

swissinfo: You have been a member of the government for just over two months. How would you describe this time as economics minister?

Doris Leuthard: I first wanted to have an overview of the ministry and get to know my staff and the ongoing projects. It was also a time to assess what are the problem issues faced by the government and when it is important for me as economics minister to say something about them.

I have been accepted very kindly as a new colleague [in the government]. We discuss a lot inside the cabinet and there is a good atmosphere.

swissinfo: Have you spotted areas in the ministry, which you took over from Joseph Deiss, where you might like to make changes?

D.L.: I know Joseph Deiss very well. We discussed [before I took over] many of the issues that I am in charge of now. In this respect I could take his priorities on board. I do not have to reinvent the wheel.

But I would like to put a focus on improving the competitiveness of Switzerland because we suffer as a result of our high prices. I am convinced that Switzerland must adjust to a European [price] level so that we can keep our purchasing power at home. That creates value and jobs in the country.

swissinfo: At the end of November a referendum is taking place in Switzerland on a SFr1 billion franc contribution to help the ten states which joined the European Union in 2004. Why should Swiss voters approve the contribution?

D.L.: The main reason for me is that we are investing in new markets in eastern Europe. And we are investing in our good relationship with Europe. We had a trade surplus of SFr1.4 billion ($1.12 billion) last year with the eastern states of the EU.

According to the umbrella organisation of the Swiss mechanical and electrical engineering industries, Swissmem, 17,000 jobs will be safeguarded through cooperation with eastern Europe. That shows that the money flows back into this country. In addition, this contribution does not lead to new taxes but is completely within the current budget.

swissinfo: There are those who say that the money will come in part from contributions that would otherwise go to development aid. Where is the SFr1 billion coming from exactly?

D.L.: We will spread the contribution over ten years. That means expenditure of SFr100 million annually. The financing is such that we are saving SFr60 million a year in the foreign ministry and the economics ministry.

We will make savings in traditional aid to eastern Europe with the termination of support mainly to Russia, Bulgaria and Romania. We believe they can cope because they are not developing countries.

The remaining SFr40 million comes from the overall budget, offset by additional income, for example, from the [Swiss] withholding tax on the interest of income from the savings [in Switzerland] of persons liable for tax in the EU.

swissinfo: Part of your portfolio is agriculture, which is highly subsidised. What are you going to try to do on that issue?

D.L.: I don't like the words "highly subsidised". We are moving away from market support with reforms and the agriculture 2011 programme. We are adapting our aid to farming by encouraging direct payments. That means that we pay farmers for their performance. The market decides what they produce and how.

swissinfo: Some months before your election you told farmers that the agriculture budget should not be further reduced. But the government foresees giving less to agriculture. How will you solve this dilemma?

D.L.: First I have to say that the payments requested by the government for agriculture are the same as those available for the current period.

Then, I am tied to the principle of collegiality and I will stick to that. I will follow the decision made by the government. What is important in this reform is its direction and my party is happy with that.

You have to take into account that the government has also suggested measures that would reduce costs. If we accommodate the farmers at the cost level as well increasing payments, this could have a braking effect on structural reform. That would not be very good in view of global development that will continue even with the suspension of the Doha Round [of liberalisation talks at the World Trade Organization].

swissinfo: Your Christian Democratic Party criticised the cabinet's e-government strategy this week. How important for you is the inclusion of the Swiss abroad in the political process and e-voting?

D.L.: I strongly support the further development of modern information technologies. It is particularly important that the Swiss abroad can have information about Switzerland via the internet. Swiss newspapers abroad are available only in limited numbers.

I came to realise from acquaintances of mine who live abroad that the internet is the first source of information for them. We owe it to the Swiss abroad because it is part of the government's job to inform.

swissinfo-interview: Susanne Schanda


Doris Leuthard was born in 1963 as the eldest of four children in Meerenschwand in canton Aargau.

She studied law at Zurich University.

Before her election to the cabinet, she worked as a lawyer in Wohlen and Muri in canton Aargau.

She was elected a member of the Aargau cantonal parliament in 1997.

Leuthard became a member of the House of Representatives in 1999.

She was elected vice-president (2001) and president (2004) of the Christian Democratic Party.

Leuthard was elected to the government on June 14, 2006, eentering office as economics minister on August 1.

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