Direct democracy is based on honesty, mutual respect and mutual trust

Inconsistencies in the Federal Council’s policy

by Dr iur Marianne Wüthrich

It is fascinating to read how the Swiss people, together with the Federal Council and the Federal Assembly, developed the Swiss model in more than 100 years, with numerous plebiscites on parliament‘s proposals or on popular initiatives; how the Government and the Parliament have incorporated the concerns of the majority of the people and have developed them further and then presented them again to the sovereign. This was possible only in an open and honest interaction between the people and the authorities. Or in more general terms, the direct democratic state model on the level of the confederation, in the cantons and communes, lives on mutual respect, trust and encounter on an equal footing between the citizen and the state – openly and honestly. The spoken word is valid, the law holds and is lasting; those who want to change a rule will do so in the constitutionally prescribed way. The sovereign has always the last word.

Power plant Eglisau-Glattfelden, hydraulic power station at the High Rhine since 1920. (picture wikipedia)

Today it is still like this in most Swiss communes, and so it was in the politics of the Confederation until about 25 years ago. However, since many federal politicians as well as directors and members of the staff of various federal offices are more focused on the EU, the OECD and other foreign networks than on their own country and the concerns of the population, the direct democratic process drags on. The intended dominion of the executive – eagerly supported by Brussels, Strasbourg and Washington, because they just know their top down-approach – is an irreconcilable difference to direct democracy.
How does the Federal Council with the honest information of the voters?

Energy Strategy 2050 as an example

“The best security of supply according to the study is not provided by autarky, but by an optimal integration into the European network. This underlines the Federal Governments approach that opening the power market cannot be postponed forever or even be revoked, as certain circles are requesting.” (Federal President Doris Leuthard on 28 October 20171)
Prior to the voting on 21 May 2017 on the future energy strategy of Switzerland until the year 2035, it was not mentioned that the security of electricity supply for Switzerland would not be given without an electricity agreement with the EU. The allegedly needed conclusion of such an important contract would certainly be an essential part of an almost strategy for the next twenty years.
However, no sooner than Ms Leuthard had been able to fix a “yes” in the people’s votes, the Swiss Federal Office of Energy SFOE subordinate to her placed an order at related departments of the ETH and the University of Basel on a study of the security of power supply. The results of this investigation2 were presented by the DETEC (Federal Department of Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications) on 27 October 2017 at the “Design of the electricity market – the challenges” conference in Berne.3 Apparently this study wasn’t really necessary, as Doris Leuthard explains in the interview that its result is what she had expected, namely: “The study recommends that we integrate ourselves even more into the European electricity market and liberalise the market in Switzerland further. After 2035, funding of renewable energy will be cancelled. By then, we will hopefully be integrated in the European electricity market.”4 With these few sentences, Leuthard bares her actual plans for the Swiss electricity supply, unfortunately just after the referendum on the Energy Strategy 2050 took place.
Those who support a further extension of the bilateral approach with the EU through further agreements can see by the example of the electricity agreement quite specifically that we would massively lower our sights in terms of our federalist and direct democratic system.

“Inland market opening” means total liberalisation of power trading

A precondition for the conclusion of the electricity agreement with the EU is a radical liberalisation of the Swiss power trading. However, the Swiss voters have never agreed to such plans so far. In 2002, the Swiss Federation of Trade Unions (SGB) took the referendum against the Power Market Act because it envisaged the liberalisation of the electricity market. The people followed the SGB and rejected the law at the ballot box. Reacting on that, the Parliament amended in 2007 the law to some extend and decided to liberalise electricity market in two steps, which came into force in 2009. One could call this action of the federal authorities in Berne a democracy-preventing attrition tactic, because it is unacceptable for citizens to exert, within a few years, a second referendum with 50,000 signatures to be collected on an almost identical topic – which nobody embraced to do. According to that law of 2007, major customers with an annual consumption of more than 100,000 kilowatt hours of electricity can freely choose their suppliers, i.e. also those from abroad, where the electricity prices are lower. Private households and small and medium-sized enterprises continue to be bound to the Swiss electricity suppliers; they were allowed to buy on the free market according to plan from 2014 onwards. But this step didn’t become effective until now. (Source: Finanz und Wirtschaft from 6.6.2017)
Doris Leuthard replied on the interviewer‘s objection that the conditions for the electricity agreement were not given at all, because the domestic electricity market was only partially open: “We are ready. All it takes is a federal decree for the full opening.” (“Neue Zürcher Zeitung” from 28 October 2017) – However, this federal decree is not a trivial matter, because it will be subject to the facultative referendum, and the people’s approval is unlikely to be expected this time.

Swiss hydropower plants must remain in the hands of cantons and communes!

Federal President Mrs Leuthard states in the interview crystal clear what market opening would mean in Switzerland. However, it is also clear that the federalist Swiss electricity supply, a public service under the supervision of the electors, is of great importance to our country and not so easy to crack: “Since the partial opening of the market a few years ago, there were not any mergers between the roughly 700 Swiss power providers. With so many players and more than 8,000 different rates, it becomes difficult. […]” Let’s hope it will be difficult and remains difficult. The majority of the “many players” are cantons and communes. Water and waterpower have always been under their custody. The smaller power plants are typically fully 100 % owned by cantons and communes, the same applies even to Axpo, a really large group that bustles in foreign wind parks, instead of bringing Switzerland forward in the area of solar and wind power. Only a few Swiss power providers are trading on the stock exchange, and their shares are mostly in the hands of cantons and communes. It goes without saying that the majority of the Swiss people wants to retain sovereignty over water and hydropower as basic facilities of the public service and will make a stand against its sales to foreign power giants.
Ears are burning if we have to listen to the speech of the responsible head of the Department: “The small suppliers baulk at the full liberalisation, because there is little level of suffering. […] We have to talk to the cantons and the Association of Power Providers and tell them: If you want to be responsible further on and do business, you have to restructure. This will certainly be a difficult discussion.”
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It is important to note that before the referendum on the revised Energy Act (EnA), the Federal Council did not openly and honestly inform and debate the essential facts of its energy policy. Of course, Switzerland as a small state is still reliant on energy imports, of course it is together with its neighbouring countries part of the power grids in its geographical situation in the midst of Europe. As Oliver Koch – who participated as a representative of the EU Commission in the DETEC meeting in Berne on 27 October – said that the EU is likewise interested in cooperating with Switzerland: “The EU, for its part, is benefiting from the well-developed Swiss electricity grid and the numerous hydroelectric power plants that can serve as buffers if there is no wind nor sunshine.”5 Power trading and cooperation between Switzerland and its neighbouring countries is working at best today, even without Electricity Agreement. If, however, Germany or France should run short of power one day, they will no longer supply Switzerland – with or without agreement. So in terms of energy as well as food, the more self-sufficiency the better.

Latest bits and pieces concerning the Institutional Framework Agreement

According to Doris Leuthard, the EU Bilateral Agreement on Electricity is supposedly “since three years […] stuck because the framework agreement with the EU is not concluded, because the Swiss people voted for the control of immigration” (“Neue Zürcher Zeitung” from 28.10.2017). Actually, everybody knows that the EU Commission has proclaimed long before the vote of 9 February 2014, that without a framework agreement, after which Switzerland would have to adopt EU law and be subject to the case-law of the ECJ, there will be no new bilateral agreements. We should be fine with this, because by having more than 100 bilateral agreements with the EU concluded, we are actually fully served. But as Ms Leuthard expressed some time ago that she wants to firm up the framework agreement within her presidential year – i.e. until 31 December 2017! – she is slowly coming under pressure.
Responsible for the negotiations with the EU is, by the way, primarily the newly elected Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis, who, a few days ago, took office as head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs FDFA. That creates hope for a wind of change in Berne. Since after his election, Cassis made the much-noticed remark that he wanted to press the “reset button” with regard to the Institutional Framework Agreement. After his first 100 days in office, Cassis wants to advance an opinion on it, as he stated on 21 October 2017 on the FDP delegates’ meeting in Engelberg (Radio SRF, Echo der Zeit, 21.10.2017). Shortly before his election, Cassis also joined the “Pro-Tell Society for a Freedom of Arms Law”, which opposes the takeover of the restrictive EU arms law within the framework of the Schengen Law. When his accession was interpreted by the media as a vote against Schengen, Cassis resigned again from “Pro Tell”. Nevertheless, he explained to the FDP delegates in Engelberg: “I adhere to the freedom of arms, as it is appropriate to the Swiss tradition.” As finally said ... In contrast, the leaving Chief of the FDFA Didier Burkhalter in Engelberg who had always spoken in a convoluted manner about the question of the supreme decision-making body in the framework agreement suddenly spoke plain language: “All possibilities for an institutional solution with the EU have been analysed, and the ECJ plays a role in all variants, because it applies legislation of the EU.”
In contrast, according to Radio SRF on the 21.10.2017, Liberals (FDP) foreign politicians, such as Councillor of States Damian Müller (Lucerne) and National Councillor Walter Müller (St. Gallen), support the reset button of Federal Councillor Cassis in the sense of a pause: they want to discuss the negotiating mandate concerning the Framework Agreement once again. – That’s a pleasing trend in the Liberals party!

To re-adhere to the rules of the democratic discourse

Precisely because the EU leaders are not familiar with the direct democratic and federalist Swiss model, it is the responsibility of our Federal Councillors and their officials and negotiators that they represent clearly in Brussels what fits and what doesn’t fit to our country – and that they eventually pause for a moment and press the “reset button”. It is up to us as citizens and to the parliamentarians to request from the Federal Council open and honest information of the public on what is being negotiated in Brussels. It is unacceptable that today not even the Foreign Affairs Committees of the National Council and the Council of States do know what exactly is the supposed content of the Institutional Framework Agreement. Or that we happen to read in the daily press that the Federal Council wants to deprive our cantons and communes of the hydroelectric power stations and to leave them to the “open market” or to major European corporations.
An indispensable part of the political culture in the direct democratic Switzerland is the fair dealings at eye level and mutual trust between authorities and administration on the one hand and the population on the other hand. We must not allow to lose these precious achievements due to some executive and administrative officials’ striving for power and prestige.    •

1    „We cannot postpone a power market opening for ever.” Interview with Federal President Doris Leuthard. Giorgio v. Müller and Helmut Sanders. NZZ online from 28.10.2017
2    “Modelling of the system adequacy [security of supply] in Switzerland in the field of Electricity”, published by the Federal Office of Energy SFOE 26 October 2017; www.bfe.admin.ch/themen/00612/00613/index.html?lang=de&dossier_id=06901
3    Press release of the Federal Council. Security of power supply ensured despite difficult market conditions. Berne, 27.10.2017
4    “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” from 28.10.2017; cf. also report of the SFOE of 27 October 2017. “Modelling of the system adequacy [security of supply] in Switzerland in the field of Electricity”. Management Summary, p. 9
5    Press release of the Federal Council. Security of power supply ensured despite difficult market conditions. Berne, 27.10.2017

Opening up of the agricultural market instead of protecting domestic production

mw. On 24 September 2017, the Swiss people adopted the counter-(contrary) proposal on the Food Security Initiative of the Farmers’ Union with a high percentage of “yes”. No wonder in the light of the multi-million-dollar campaign of the supporters, who hung the whole country with homely placards and thus led the voters to believe in the protection of domestic agricultural production, what didn’t correspond to the content of the vote in any way (see Current Concerns No 19 from 15 August, No 21 from 10 September and No 22/23 from 23 September 2017).
Now the Federal Council has come to the public›s attention with an “overall view of the medium-term development of the agricultural policy” (Federal Council press release of 1 November 2017). As part of agricultural policy from 2022 (AP22 +), the Federal Council plans that “domestic and foreign agricultural markets should be better networked under trade agreements”. The Federal Council wants to “give new perspectives” to the “actors of the agriculture and food industry”, among other things “digitisation will play an important role”. In the opinion of the Federal Council, the dismantling of the border protection is “economically advantageous and – accompanied by suitable support measures – manageable for the Swiss agriculture and food industry”. As stated in the three Current Concerns articles mentioned above, in reality this policy would mean the end for a large part of the producing Swiss farms.
What must be said here in favor of Federal Councillor Johann Schneider-Ammann, head of the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research (EAER): He did not lie to the people and the peasants before the vote, but supported already in the summer exactly the same position and started to think about the “new perspectives” for the farmers. For example, their coercion to merge their farms, because according to the housekeeping book calculation of Mr Schneider-Ammann for the double floor area only one instead of two tractors would be needed so that the direct payments from Berne could be halved in the longer term …
On the other hand, the leaders of the Swiss Farmers’ Union SFU, who are now complaining so loud, have misled the peasantry and the people. They should not have withdrawn their popular initiative signed by 150,000 voters. And they should not have drummed up business for the counter-(contrary) proposal, knowing that its formulation can be interpreted in one way or another.
Now the SFU and political parties such as the SVP or even the Greens – who do not want open borders for imports of cheap, but in terms of environment and health far less strictly controlled food, as required by Swiss law, – stand before their self-wrought mess. We will see how they will themselves work out of this, and how they would reflect on their commitment to using their resources for the producing Swiss agriculture and the consumer demand for healthy nutrition.

Importance of Swiss hydropower for energy supply of the country

“Today (1.1.2017) there are 643 hydropower plants in Switzerland that each have a capacity of at least 300 kilowatts, and these produce an average of around 36,264 gigawatt hours (GWh/y) per annum, 48.2% of which is produced in run-of-river power plants, 47.5% in storage power plants and approximately 4.3% in pumped storage power plants. Roughly 63% of hydroelectricity are generated in the mountain cantons of Uri, Grisons, Ticino and Valais, while Aargau and Berne also generate significant quantities. Roughly 11% of Switzerland‘s hydropower generation comes from facilities situated on bodies of water along the country‘s borders.
The hydropower market is worth around 1,8 billion Swiss francs (basis = delivery from power plant at 5 cents per kilowatt hour), and is therefore an important segment of Switzerland‘s energy industry.”
(Swiss hydropower. Homepage of Swiss Federal Office of Energy SFOE)