New president hopes to lead country into UN

Finance minister Kaspar Villiger takes on the one-year rotating presidency for 2002 Keystone Archive

On the eve of his year as Swiss president, Kaspar Villiger told swissinfo about his plans for the year ahead.

This content was published on December 30, 2001 - 10:31

Villiger, who is finance minister, takes on the one-year rotating presidency as Switzerland prepares to vote on United Nations membership, and gets ready for the national exhibition - Expo.02 - which opens in May 2002.

He spoke to swissinfo's editor-in-chief, Peter Salvisberg, and the head of the Italian service, Mariano Masserini.

Last year the international community and especially Switzerland was shaken by sad and tragic events. What lessons have you learnt from these events for the new year?

We noticed that any world event can also affect us. Of course, New York was hit hardest by the September 11 attacks, but we felt the consequences here in Switzerland as well. It was the last straw for Swissair, the anti-terrorism campaign was launched all over the world and stock markets were affected by the attacks. I think we should keep in mind that global events do affect us. We are more than an island, so we should try to find solutions to international problems as much as we can.

Recent events have affected people's emotions, but I think Switzerland is not in a bad shape and that the country has learnt a lot about politics and economics during the last recession. However, people still feel insecure and ministers are just as affected by these disasters as other people. And if I look at recent events in Switzerland, such as the Gotthard disaster, the plane crash, and so forth, I think we must keep in mind that as a country we are pretty well off, and that we can solve problems. I think it is important that we do not lose confidence and I will do my utmost to solve problems.

In 1995, when you were president for the first time, the country also went through a bad time, with high unemployment and low growth. Are there any parallels to be made with the situation today?

I don't think so. In 1995 many problems did not get solved. I think the structure of our economy was not really up to becoming an export nation in the global market and we went through a time of insecurity. When the bilateral negotiations with the European Union came to a halt we asked ourselves whether there was any point in carrying on. However, I believe that we managed to find some solutions for a few problems during this time. For my department it was reorganising the state finances; for the economics ministry it was restructuring many companies and getting them ready for the future. It was also the time of the new agricultural policy and privatisation in the telecommunications sector. I think people can learn from times of crises and after we had gone through a phase of doubts and insecurity, we learned that problems had to be dealt with. So I think that we are better off now than back then. However, psychologically we think it is as bad.

What are your priorities for the coming year?

The Swiss president is a "primus interpares" [first among equals] and the Swiss presidency cannot be compared with the presidency in other countries. The Swiss president is mainly responsible for cabinet meetings and it is my top priority that the cabinet delivers good work and I will make sure - as much as I can - that this will be the case. The president does not only represent the country abroad, he also acts as a representative at home. It is important to me to engage in dialogue with different circles and people. I will also try to make the cabinet's policies understood and explain the work of our institutions and, above all, I will try to listen.

My two top priorities are the United Nations and [the national exhibition] Expo.02. I think the referendum on joining the UN [on March 3] is very important and I will do my best to convince the Swiss people that membership is important. As far as Expo.02 is concerned, I think it is an important meeting platform and I have placed great hopes in this event.

What will you say to other countries if the Swiss reject UN membership?

I hope I will not have to explain this to other countries. My top priority is to make sure that the Swiss people vote in favour and are convinced about their choice. As I said before, we are affected by other countries' problems and it is almost impossible for one country to find a solution to a global problem. The UN deals with international problems, such as poverty, environment, peace, etc. It is important that we join such an organisation, no matter how imperfect it may be. It would be good to contribute our know-how and influence and I think that the Swiss will realise that we can benefit from it as well.

What role can Expo.02 play in Switzerland? At the moment there seems to be little enthusiasm for it...

Well, it was the same in 1964 - it will only become interesting once it has started - once people can go and meet there. Expo.02 can only provide the framework - it is the people who make the event a success. As a student I was not excited about the Expo at all, but I took the train one day and went to Lausanne with a few friends. It was such a nice day and we still talk about it today. I am sure it will be the same this time. It will be a meeting platform for our cultures, our history, but above all for our people and I am sure that if the weather is good it will be a success.

I don't think it is self-contemplation and if you look at the programme you will see that the events are very creative and critical. It will have many different facets and I am sure there will be controversy. However, we are one of the few countries where different cultures and languages live next to each other. Every once in a while it is important to invest in 'cohabitation'.

Switzerland has four national languages - do you think English should be taught from an early age?

If you want to succeed in your job you will have to speak a little bit of English nowadays and the question is when to start learning the language. I am no expert when it comes to teaching and schooling but I have noticed that it is much easier to learn a language if you start from a very early age. However, I think it is absolutely essential to give our own languages priority, as we have to be able to talk to each other in order to understand each other's cultures. I don't think it is too much to learn one of the national languages and English at the same time.

It might be too much for some to learn all these languages at the same time, but it should be possible to learn two. As I said I am no expert and I hated learning languages. My dad always used to say: "you will need languages". I learned English and French - these two languages were obligatory - and then I had to learn Italian. I did not like it, but my father was right - it came in handy.

Switzerland has recently come under increased pressure because of the country's banking secrecy laws - are you willing to find a compromise?

We have conducted surveys for several years and the outcome has always been the same. I don't think the banking secrecy laws will be lifted under our direct democracy - even if the government was prepared to do so, the people could stop us. Our banking secrecy is part of our tradition and the Swiss people appreciate their privacy in these matters. However, it is clear that absolute banking secrecy, as it was 40 or 50 years ago, could be abused and this is no longer justifiable. For this reason we have made changes to the network surrounding the banking secrecy laws. We have upgraded legal aid; we have introduced money-laundering laws and we have introduced rules governing money from dictators abroad. Obviously, banking secrecy laws should not protect any crime, money laundering or drug money. However, Switzerland has been more successful in tracking down criminals than other countries. If you look at [the former Nigerian dictator, Sani] Abacha's money - other countries did not react and Switzerland discovered the crime. I think if we continue to work on these matters, our banking secrecy will be justifiable. I would like to point out that a financial centre, such as Switzerland, has to meet moral and ethical requirements in order to survive.

The country's finances don't really look that good at the moment...

Well, a finance minister never finishes his work. I think that our finances are in much better shape than they were a few years ago. This is partly due to the healthier economy but also to the good political performance of our administration, cabinet and parliament. The problem is that once the financial position has improved the demands also increase. I think a third of all Swiss and a similar number of ministers want to increase spending, while one third want to cut taxes and the other third want both, which is not possible. We have to learn to consolidate and we must not make the same mistake we made 10 years ago. As you know the Swiss people have voted 85 per cent in favour of our debt reduction strategy and this result was pretty clear.

In 2002, you will have to attend dozens of official occasions. Which ones are you most looking forward to?

I'm looking forward to meeting people. If I did not look forward to that I should not be a politician. I am looking forward to Expo.02 and to the opening ceremony. I am looking forward to meeting ministers and prime ministers from other countries. I have been there before - being president can be very rewarding - but one has to stay modest. You are only president for one year and then it's over again and that is good. As Swiss president, it is impossible to become too big headed. Our powers are limited and controlled. I am looking forward to my presidential year but I also have a lot of respect. My colleague and friend, Moritz Leuenberger, has found out that being the Swiss president is not always easy. And I hope that our country will be spared such disasters next year.

Interview: Mariano Masserini and Peter Salvisberg

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