Welcome dear reader or Wilkommen, Bienvenue, Ben Arrivata and Bainvegni for Switzerland, my country of choice for today has four official languages! That last word of welcome, Bainvegni, is actually Romansh, a language unique to Switzerland.
Anyhow, I’m not going to give you a language lesson have no fear!
Switzerland is actually a country I’ve been meaning to look at for a while and despite it being a non-EU member it has not been immune to the crises of the Eurozone and the refugee influx of the summer.
Let’s start with the economy first, as it is not in the EU (and not the Euro) the Swiss Franc currency has actually been surging forward this year hitting the dominant Swiss export market. The biggest trading partner of Switzerland is the EU, this makes sense given that it is completely surrounded by EU member states! Most exports to the EU consist of chemicals, medicines, machinery and watches according to the European Commission and it is noteworthy that it had one of the first Free Trade Agreements with the EU, signed back in 1972.
There are certainly small indicators of strain, such as the report in the French language Tribune de Geneve, concerning recent violence during protests over culture budget cuts in downtown Geneva. It resulted in luxury shops having their windows smashed and graffiti being sprayed across the elegant facade of the Grand Theatre. Inequality may well lurk beneath the surface in exclusive Switzerland and addressing this should also be a priority for the Swiss authorities. According to a survey conducted by the Swiss Federation of Trade Unions (SGB) in May this year, the richest fifth of the country owns 86% of the assets, the gap being much greater than most think.
The Bern-based State Secretariat for Economic Affairs forecast that GDP growth would be 0.8% this year and 1.5% in 2016. I have to say that on a recent trip to Zurich back in the summer I didn’t actually notice any ill effect on the economy but then what exactly was I meant to look out for on holiday!? There were certainly no beggars that I could see but that is a very superficial way of looking for inequality or lack of wealth.
The second point is the refugee crisis, and despite a large number of its population being foreign born (I think it is about a third!) Switzerland has grappled with the thorny issue of immigration for a long time. In fact, in one of their unique direct democracy initiatives the Swiss narrowly voted to set quotas on immigration to their land, thereby throwing their treaty obligations with the EU over freedom of movement into disarray.
The incoming Swiss President, Johann Schneider-Ammann, has made it a priority to try and resolve this matter in the New Year and has said he is optimistic of an agreement over a form of ‘safety valve’ to control immigration flows, according to the Swiss German-language daily newspaper, Neue Zuercher Zeitung.
Mr Schneider-Ammann is not without domestic pressure, as the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) led by multibillionaire, Christoph Blocher, has led a fiercely anti-immigration campaign and on the back of that won the biggest share of the votes in the October parliamentary election and an extra seat on the governing, seven-member Federal Council (the Federal Council acting as a sort of collective Presidency with a Chairman who changes ever year).
Swiss politicians are also at risk of becoming out of touch with their electorate, a common complaint across Europe. This is odd for somebody from outside Switzerland to understand as Switzerland is often held up as a shining example of direct democracy (with regular referendums on issues ranging from garbage disposal to immigration), prized neutrality on international affairs and humanitarian principles (the UN has its second HQ in Geneva and hosts peace talks).
Edward Girardet, a former editor of English language Swiss newspaper, Le News, highlighted the Swiss aversion to controversy, such as immigration, therefore mainstream parties will not touch the subject, leaving to the SVP to make the running, and he criticises the own goal scored by the Swiss government’s recent decision to close a state sponsored popular English language news radio station, stating that it will deprive many newcomers to Switzerland of reliable news and society information.
As I mentioned earlier, I have been to Switzerland on several occasions and been from west to east and seen the modern, prosperous and cosmopolitan country it has become. However, what I did not see was the life outside the dynamic cities and the largely rural and rather isolated communities who like many of their counterparts in Europe and USA feel, erroneously in my humble opinion, that globalisation and contact with the outside world brings trouble to their way of life. It needn’t but this has to be communicated to them by politicians challenging their viewpoints and standing up for the values that have made Switzerland such a beacon for many.