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New president says Switzerland ‘always puts the health of its population first’

Guy Parmelin outside the Swiss parliament in Bern Tomas Wüthrich / 13 Photo

Guy Parmelin will assume the rotating Swiss presidency for the first time on January 1. He will have the difficult tasks of guiding Switzerland through the Covid-19 pandemic and defending the institutional agreement with the European Union against the wishes of his right-wing party.

This content was published on December 25, 2020 - 14:00

The 61-year-old economics minister spoke to SWI swissinfo.ch during a ten-day quarantine, which he was forced to enter after returning from London on December 14.

swissinfo.ch: In recent months economic interests have played a major role in Switzerland’s policy against Covid-19. The magazine Foreign Policy, for example, ran the headline ‘Switzerland is choosing austerity over life’. Did Switzerland choose austerity over life?

Guy Parmelin: No, I’m opposed to this view, which presents Switzerland as a selfish country in its handling of the coronavirus crisis. We have always put the health of the population first. That said, balancing health measures and their economic effects is obviously necessary. So far, we’ve managed to do that pretty well.

We regularly review our system. In recent weeks the cantons have begun to coordinate better and to apply stricter measures than the national standards allow. This demonstrates the responsibility they have taken in managing this crisis.

Guy Parmelin

Guy Parmelin was born on November 9, 1959. He comes from the village of Bursins, on the shores of Lake Geneva in French-speaking western Switzerland.

Trained as a farmer and winegrower, he focused on politics early on. After being president of the Swiss People’s Party for canton Vaud, he joined the House of Representatives in 2003.

In 2015 he was elected to Switzerland’s seven-member government. He was given the defence and sports portfolio. In 2019 he took over at the economics ministry.

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swissinfo.ch: But in Austria and Germany, two neighbouring countries with comparable health systems, relative mortality rates are much lower. How do you explain this?

G.P.: Each country is dealing with the crisis in its own way. Germany, which is a federalist country comparable to ours, was less affected at the beginning of the crisis this spring. Austria acted very firmly at the beginning, then opted for liberal measures in the summer before tightening them again.

Switzerland is constantly carrying out its own analysis of the situation. One can always criticise the government’s decisions and feel that it should have acted differently. But we are taking responsibility for our choices, which were made in coordination with the cantons. We have clear rules and criteria – that’s how things work here.

swissinfo.ch: This autumn a lot of noise was made about the measures of varying sizes decided by the cantons, which caused a fair bit of irritation. Will federalism emerge unscathed from this crisis?

G.P.: I’m convinced that it’s not a question of a failure of federalism, even if it’s necessary to have a look certain aspects of it. Federalism must work not only in good weather but also in a storm. There have sometimes been delays and poor coordination between the various levels of the state. Lessons must be learnt. But it’s not true that methods used in centralised countries have been better than ours. We are all committed to federalism and national cohesion; we’re not going to throw them away at the first crisis that comes along.

swissinfo.ch: Confidence in the government is at an all-time low, according to polls. How do you intend to win back the hearts of the Swiss?

G.P.: What is really difficult in this crisis is to enable people and businesses to plan for the future. This leads to growing dissatisfaction with our decisions – which I completely understand. I also sense a certain fatigue among the population. The arrival of the vaccines should help relax the atmosphere and gradually return things to normal. But let’s be clear: the damage has been done; it will be long-term. Our role will be to minimise it and ensure that Switzerland is ready when the recovery comes.

Parmelin says he can sense a certain amount of Covid fatigue among the public Tomas Wüthrich / 13 Photo

swissinfo.ch: The crisis has already cost the government more than CHF30 billion ($33.7 billion). But at just under 30% of GDP Switzerland’s debt ratio is still very low by international standards. Isn’t it time for the state to play a greater role and develop an investment plan to revive the economy?

G.P.: Economists are almost unanimous: a stimulus package would not make sense at the moment. The financial stimuli and the billions of francs that have been freed up allow the economic machine to continue to function and to withstand temporary difficulties.

At the same time, we are investing heavily in the future. Parliament decided in its last session to grant a credit of CHF28 billion for research and education over the next four years. Measures were also decided to support the export industry and SMEs [small and medium-sized businesses] that want to invest in research and development projects.

The government has set up a special innovation promotion programme worth CHF130 million for the next two years. This means that up to 2024 a total of CHF260 million will be made available to encourage companies to invest in innovation by relieving them of part of their costs. Tourism, sport and the cultural sector will also benefit from other specific types of support.

swissinfo.ch: Is the Swiss economy resilient enough to recover quickly from the crisis or is it likely to suffer serious damage?

G.P.: The damage has been done. It varies greatly from one economic sector to another. Within a single industry, the situation is very uneven. For example, hotels in cities are suffering much more than those in the mountains.

However, the latest statistics show that the bankruptcy rate in 2020 was lower than in previous years. This proves that the state has intervened in a targeted and effective manner, even if it may be keeping economic structures alive artificially.

The way out of the crisis will depend on the rate at which we can vaccinate the population and regain control of the epidemic. I believe that the best recovery plan is one that allows people to work.

swissinfo.ch: You place a lot of hope in vaccinating the population. However, compared internationally, the Swiss are particularly sceptical about the Covid vaccine. Are you going to get vaccinated in public to set an example?

G.P.: Of course I’m going to get vaccinated, and I’m prepared to do it in the middle of a football stadium if necessary (laughs). Vaccination is a civic act towards people at risk and it is the best way to quickly return to a certain normality.

That said, the fears and questions of part of the population are perfectly legitimate. The Swiss authorities will demonstrate maximum transparency over the coming months, both on the composition and effectiveness of this vaccine and on its possible side effects.  

'When you are elected to the government, you know the rules of the game.' Tomas Wüthrich / 13 Photo

swissinfo.ch: As president, you will also be expected to report on the institutional framework agreement with the EU – if this is successful. Are you ready to put your signature at the bottom of this document in Brussels?

G.P.: Before signing this agreement, the negotiations and discussions currently underway must be completed. The government will take note of this and then decide on the way forward. If there is the outcome you mention, the Swiss president should in principle initial the document.

swissinfo.ch: You will then be completely at odds with your party, the Swiss People’s Party, which steadfastly rejects this agreement.

G.P.: Every cabinet minister represents the views of a political party. But then discussions take place, decisions are taken and they are supported by the entire government. This is called collegiality. In this particular case, it will be no different. When you are elected to the government, you know the rules of the game. If you don’t want to stick to them, you shouldn’t run for election.

Translated from French by Thomas Stephens

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