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Political outlook for Switzerland in 2021

On hold for two years, the debate about the framework agreement with the EU will be back on the table in 2021. Keystone / Martin Ruetschi

Switzerland will have a lot to contend with in 2021 even if the country manages to emerge relatively unscathed from the coronavirus crisis. From the possible collapse of the framework agreement with the European Union and a heated domestic debate on a burka ban to the fate of the Geneva-based WTO and WHO, there are stormy waters ahead.

This content was published on December 29, 2020 - 11:00
Samuel Jaberg, Marc Leutenegger, Balz Rigendinger, International Geneva journalists

Face covering in 2021

The year 2020 ended with an epic battle at the ballot box when the responsible business initiative was rejected in a very tight race, and the tension looks set to continue into the new year. Next year’s first popular vote on a nationwide ban on wearing a burka or niqab in public places promises an equally emotional, or maybe even more emotional campaign. If accepted on 7 March 2021, this proposal which was put forward by members of hard right-wing parties in 2017, will undoubtedly make headlines in the international press. 

The Egerkingen Committee, which was also the driver for the anti-minaret initiative approved by 57.5% of the Swiss voters in 2009, can count on support that goes beyond traditional conservative and nationalist circles. In French-speaking Switzerland, for example, leading politicians of all parties have established a committee together that advocates for equal rights for men and women and warns of emerging Islamic fundamentalism in Switzerland.

In view of the committee’s strong arguments, it will be difficult for the government, the majority of parliamentarians and human rights organisations, which deem this initiative useless and counterproductive for women, to make their case heard. This is especially true since the burka ban has gained popularity in recent years. In Europe, France, Belgium, Denmark and Austria have already introduced a burka ban as have the Swiss cantons of Ticino and St Gallen.

It is the height of irony that the initiative to ban full face coverings is put to the people at a time when everyone has been wearing a mask in public places since last summer. It remains to be seen whether the Covid-19 pandemic will have any influence on the outcome of the vote.

Pesticides – a big challenge for society

Could 2021 become the super year of people’s initiatives? While such votes usually have little chance of succeeding (only one in ten is accepted), two other proposals requiring a constitutional amendment are coming at an opportune moment. Both are about synthetic pesticides, an issue which is close to consumers’ hearts in Switzerland and elsewhere in the world.

The initiative for a Switzerland free of synthetic pesticides seeks to ban pesticide use and the import of food containing pesticides, while the clean drinking water and healthy food initiative aims to cut direct subsidies to farmers who use pesticides or antibiotics.

Despite the radical nature of these proposals, it is rather unlikely that the relentless campaign by agriculture representatives and the agrochemical industry will suffice to counteract the public support they have been enjoying. History shows that the Swiss are particularly fussy when it comes to the food that ends up on their plates. In 2005, Switzerland became the first country to ban the use of genetically modified organisms.

Pension reforms – a never-ending story

The year 2021 will also be a busy one for parliamentarians. The reform of the occupational pension scheme is at the top of their to-do list. After the Swiss people rejected the first revision of the pension reform in 2019, the ball is back in the government’s court to revise the old-age pension and disability benefit, proposing an increase in the retirement age for women from 64 to 65 years.

Living and ageing. Is the price too high?

The Covid-19 vaccine doses have been ordered, and there will be enough for everyone in Switzerland. When the time comes, people will not have to fight for a jab – not here in our wealthy country where people were willing to pay virtually any price for a mask when they were in short supply at the beginning of the pandemic. Switzerland purchased FFP2 masks worth CHF2 a piece for CHF10 which shows how desperate the nation was. Two teenage entrepreneurs who imported masks from China became multi-millionaires overnight and reportedly rewarded themselves with luxury cars. After nearly a year of fighting Covid-19, the Swiss have learnt their lesson.

There is yet another debate about cost that will not go away that easily. It is about the price of life and health. How many billions should the country spend on health, or more specifically on the health of the older, more vulnerable generation? Just before Christmas, the Zurich medical historian Flurin Condrau voiced his concern that the idea of eugenics, the doctrine that divides life into worthy and unworthy, was bubbling to the surface in Switzerland. “It seems acceptable to lose a higher number of people in the age group of 65 and older just to prevent a nationwide hard lockdown,” he was quoted as saying.  

Given the high number of deaths in Switzerland, his concern is understandable, but this is only one side of the story. The other side is that young people have pulled themselves together and shown humility and solidarity. They may have been forced and they may have been grumpy about it, but on the whole, they have been disciplined. It will also be the young generation who has to bear the brunt of the consequences of the virus, just like they are bearing the brunt of climate change without having greatly contributed to the damage. Expensive times are ahead of us, and despite the danger of playing the blame game, there is hope that we will remember what the pandemic has taught us: to work together, with everyone, for everyone.

The Swiss public is also waiting for parliament’s position on the revision of the occupational pension scheme (the so-called second pillar) which will put interior minister Alain Berset’s popularity to the test. He has been omnipresent on the pandemic front in recent months.

Having to deal with all the points above and more, will spice up this year’s four parliamentary sessions that will continue to take place in a plexiglas maze until the coronavirus is defeated.

Salvaging the framework agreement

After having been on hold for two years, the debate about the framework agreement with the EU, the Gordian knot of Swiss foreign policy, has been brought back to the table. By rejecting the right-wing Swiss People’s Party’s limitation initiative in September 2020, the Swiss people paved the way for the continuation of this bilateral treaty. In October 2020, the Federal Council decided to replace the chief negotiator for EU talks Roberto Balzaretti with the previous ambassador to France, Livia Leu. This move was obviously an attempt to breathe new life into the negotiations with the EU.

The upbeat mood is more on the Swiss side; the position of the EU trade negotiator is currently vacant. For years, wage protection, state aid, the EU citizenship directive and the establishment of an arbitration authority have been the sticking points between the two parties and have stalled negotiations. The list of unsuccessful negotiators reads like a Who’s Who of Swiss diplomacy: top diplomats like Yves Rossier, Jacques de Watteville and Pascale Baeriswyl all failed to make progress against the EU’s hard-line stance. In the Brexit negotiations, the EU has also made clear that its willingness for compromises has its limits. The situation remains complex, as without substantial amendments, the current draft has little chance of gaining acceptance on the domestic political front in Switzerland.  

Migration: are we heading into another fiasco?

The EU’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum, which has been blocked within the EU, will have indirect consequences for Switzerland. During their last meeting in December 2020, the member states could not agree on controversial issues such as the distribution of asylum-seekers within the EU, which is heavily opposed by Poland and Hungary. Migration looks likely to become a hot European topic in 2021. Once the Covid-19 pandemic is resolved, the summer will see a significant increase in migration, the consequences of which are still unforeseeable. The pandemic has strengthened the notion of nationhood and reinstated border controls within the EU. It is likely that the southern European countries most affected by migration will try to maintain extended border protection which could lead to chaos and humanitarian disasters like the one on the Greek island of Lesbos.

Migration will also shape Swiss foreign policy away from the headlines. With the new international cooperation strategy for 2021 to 2024, development cooperation will focus on four geographic regions instead of six. Operations in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Eastern Europe will be maintained while cooperation work in Latin America and the Caribbean will gradually be phased out by 2024. Switzerland will also fulfill its long-standing tradition of being a peace promoter and humanitarian actor as stipulated in its 2020-2023 Foreign Policy Strategy. The candidacy for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council will also move ahead in 2021. 

Switzerland and the superpowers

Last but not least, Switzerland will reposition itself vis-à-vis the two global superpowers, the US and China. Under President-elect Joe Biden, US foreign policy will change course, with consequences for the country’s Middle East policy where Switzerland has been heavily involved. The federal government will also have to explain the Swiss National Bank’s interventions on the US exchange market in order to avoid economic sanctions. However, Switzerland deems this interference necessary to prevent the further appreciation of the Swiss franc and an increase in export prices.

The new China strategy of the federal government requires skill and tact. Foreign minister Ignazio Cassis expressed some criticism towards China in the summer which earned him opprobrium from the business associations. So far, Switzerland has nurtured its business relations with China and has held a non-committal human rights dialogue, dismissed as a fig leaf by the left. It will be interesting to see if the Federal Council will show more courage in the new year. Most recently, it decided not to extend a controversial repatriation agreement with China which got rid of some domestic political pressure.

A key year for WHO und WTO

2021 should see some decisive changes for International Geneva, especially for some of its beleaguered organisations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Geopolitical tensions, especially with the US and China, will continue to affect Geneva’s role as a hub for international peace promotion, migration and humanitarian action. Funding for Geneva-based UN agencies and non-governmental organisations will be a central concern, while the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic and how it has changed the way International Geneva works will gradually become more apparent.

Starting afresh with the US

Many of the cash-strapped organisations in Geneva are hopeful that the new US administration will support them again and put an end to the pressure they experienced under the Trump administration. However, it is unlikely that everything will change overnight once Joe Biden enters the White House. Organisations like the WTO will still be under immense pressure to push through reforms. Will the WTO be able to survive without an efficient system of mediation and arbitration to settle trade disputes? How will China and developing countries engage with the WTO? At the beginning of the year, the WTO will appoint a new leader, and for the first time in the 25-year history of the organisation it will be a woman.

After President Trump accused the WHO of being too lax with China during the Covid-19 pandemic, the organisation is now pushing ahead with its COVAX pool of vaccines which aims to ensure developing countries’ equitable access to the inoculation. Once the first vaccines are rolled out, it will be interesting to see if COVAX will restore the WHO’s image. There are also plans for a global WHO-led system for sharing pathogen materials and clinical samples to “facilitate the rapid development of medical countermeasures as global public goods”, said WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus.

Ambitious goals

Digitalisation will also be high up on the agenda in 2021. Remote working and e-diplomacy which were introduced during the pandemic have not been without hiccups, but for many employers they carry huge cost-saving potential. How will Geneva-based organisations deal with this in 2021? International Geneva will also try to establish itself as a hub for digital policymaking, digital ethics, data management and cyber security. It will be interesting to see whether it succeeds.

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