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“The financial sector will be a huge challenge”

Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf doesn't see politics in black and white Dukas

Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf will serve as Switzerland’s president in 2012. But until a few weeks ago, it was not even clear that she would still have a cabinet seat.

The 55-year-old centre-right politician and finance minister won re-election on December 14, despite an attack on her seat by the rightwing People’s Party.

In an interview with to mark the start of her presidency, Widmer-Schlumpf talks about the major political challenges ahead and states her position on energy issues. Did you give any thought before the cabinet election to what you would do if you weren’t re-elected?

Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf: Yes, of course. Now you are going to ask me what I would have done, but I won’t tell you that. I would certainly not have been unemployed and I would have kept myself fully occupied, because I am someone who is always ready for new projects.

I wouldn’t have fallen into a depression. But something else happened after my re-election. I was knocked off course in a way. Because I had come to terms with not being elected, it took a couple of hours to take it in. What do you intend to focus on during your year as president?

E.W-S.: My focus will be on the main cabinet projects. Clearly the development of the economy will be a concern in the coming year. And the problems of the financial sector, which always have an impact on industry, will be a huge challenge.

Another major area will be questions related to the energy transition. The energy strategy 2050 obliges us to put forward specific proposals for making that transition [away from nuclear energy]. We also have to provide the basis for an in-depth discussion.

In relation to the European Union we will have to deal with various tax issues. I’m referring to cantonal tax regimes. Then there are issues relating to developments in Europe.

In health policy there will be a vote on managed care, which we want to win as a team. When it comes to nationwide votes, the cabinet intends to act more as a body and to make it clear that the motions being voted on are a matter for the government as a whole and not individual ministries. Didier Burkhalter is moving from the interior ministry to the foreign ministry from January 1. Was that agreed upon by the cabinet?

E.W-S.: We in the cabinet asked ourselves who should take this portfolio in the current situation, in which questions about our relationship and cooperation with the EU – and globally also with non-European states – are very central.

The goodwill we enjoy abroad is on the decline. There are some situations that need to be resolved. Didier Burkhalter has been party to the discussions in cabinet on these issues, and has also brought his influence to bear. So it was natural for him to take over the foreign ministry and carry on the work with no major upheaval. Your party, the Conservative Democrats, are considering a closer cooperation with the Christian Democrats. How do you see the two parties working together in practice?

E.W-S.: The form the cooperation takes isn’t crucial for me. What is important is that we can agree on issues and see these through together. There are areas where the centre parties are generally agreed on the same result, and there cooperation seems obvious.

I do have my own ideas about the form the cooperation should take, but I don’t want to talk about that. The ball is now with the working group composed of members of both parties. This group will make recommendations in the next six months.

I am of the view that our party – unlike other parties – cannot and should not base itself on the opinion of one member. So even before the cabinet election I was opposed to a discussion about a merger or other form of close collaboration. This has to be a decision taken by the grassroots in both parties. Following your re-election does Switzerland have a centre-left or a centre-right government?

E.W-S.:I don’t think it is any different from before the elections. The party political composition has stayed the same, and depending on the issue we [the Conservative Democrats] will position ourselves either to the left or the right of centre.

With regard to the energy transition we are already seen as being centre-left. It depends what you consider to be rightwing and leftwing positions.

I had my position on the energy question before I was elected to the cabinet. When I was still a politician with the People’s Party I was strongly in favour of renewable energy. As a member of the Graubünden Landfrauen [rural women’s organisation] I was in any case ecologically-minded. I don’t think we should always qualify positions as being left or right. People label you – depending on their viewpoint – as a staunch conservative or as left-leaning. Where do you see yourself?

E.W-S.: The problem is that I can’t be easily pigeonholed. In financial and economic questions I’m conservative. Regarding energy I’m ecologically aware.

In social and family political questions I would describe myself as being quite liberal, because I’ve always pressed for acceptance of different lifestyles. So for example I have never let myself be labelled a good mother or a bad career woman. I’ve always said people need to do what’s right for them depending on the situation they are living in. You can’t fit that into a left-right scheme of things.

I have a conservative attitude towards federalism. I don’t think we should have a couple of big regions instead of 26 cantons. I see federalism as a very good form of state organisation.

Born March 16, 1956. Grew up in Felsberg, canton Graubünden.

She is married and the mother of three children.

After studying law in Zurich, returned to Graubünden in 1981, qualified as a lawyer and notary and graduated from Zurich University in 1990.

On March 15, 1998 elected as member of the Swiss People’s Party to the Graubünden government.

On December 12, 2007 elected to federal government in place of cabinet member Christoph Blocher, the official People’s Party candidate.

Furious at Widmer-Schlumpf accepting election, the People’s Party expelled the Graubünden section, and thereby also Widmer-Schlumpf, from the party.

The Graubünden section joined forces with defectors from the People’s Party to form the Conservative Democratic Party.

On December 14, 2011 Widmer-Schlumpf was re-elected to the cabinet. She was then also elected to serve as federal president in 2012.

(Translated from German by Morven McLean)

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR