“Seizure of power by the Federal Council” is a figment of the imagination - by Dr iur. Marianne Wüthrich
For weeks now, we have been used to members of the Federal Council appearing before the population in media conferences to communicate and justify their decisions as well as the considerations behind them, and to answer questions from the press and (by telephone) from the population. In one newspaper or online medium or another, this was interpreted as the executive branch wanting to “seize power in the state”. In reality, everyone knows that the Swiss parliament had to break off its spring session after two weeks because of health risk.1 Now it will be able to resume its full legislative role and that, amongst other things, at the Federal Council’s express request. The special session at the beginning of May will be focussing on the corona crisis.
The various committees of the National Council and the Council of States have been busy preparing this session since 6 April. The Council meetings will be held at the “Bernexpo” exhibition centre, because the observance of distance and hygiene measures can be guaranteed there for politicians and Federal Administration staff. All debates in the National Council and the Council of States can be listened to simultaneously or later online (as has been the case for several years now), and they can of course also be read.
The definitive programme will be drawn up by the offices of the two Councils on 1 May and will include all emergency decisions of the Federal Council. All parliamentary committees supported the Federal Council with large majorities and thanked them for their important commitment to the welfare of the country and the population. To supply a political context, Current Concerns has also put a number of questions to two National Councillors, belonging to the Social Democrats and the Swiss People’s Party.
Below, some of the most important of the committees’ many proposals and recommendations will be chosen as examples.2 In the extraordinary session, the majority as well as the minority representatives of the individual committees will submit their proposals and their reasons to the respective plenary sessions of the Council.
Commissions will propose approval of billion-dollar
supplementary credits and of army mission
The most important business of the session is the approval of a whole bundle of supplementary credits to the 2020 budget as a result of the corona pandemic, which the Federal Council will submit to parliament.3 The Finance Committee of the National Council (FC-N) “mostly unanimously or with large majorities requests the National Council […] to approve the corona credits requested by the Federal Council. With this request it follows the proposals of the co-reporting committees SECC, SSHC and EATC.4 (This means that a great majority in the National Council committees responsible for science/education/culture, health and economics also support the measures taken by the Federal Council). In its press release it (the finance committee FC-N) lists and presents in detail a total of over CHF 15 billion in supplementary credits to the 2020 budget, as well as CHF 40 billion in bridging loans guaranteed by the Confederation. On 28 April, the Finance Committee of the Council of States endorsed these decisions. Both Finance Committees also adopted two motions, according to which the duration of the loans for SMEs will be extended from five to eight years (Motion 20.3152) and the interest rate will remain at 0.0 per cent even after the first year (Motion 20.3153).5
Incidentally, a parliamentary representation was already involved in the corona loans announced by the Federal Council in March/April: The Finance Delegation of the Federal Assembly (FinDel)6 granted advances on the loans on several occasions (see the FinDel media releases of 23 March, 8 April and 15 April 2020). At the meetings of the two Finance Committees, a FinDel member attended and reported.
The National Council and the Council of States will also decide on the military mission which the Federal Council approved on 16 March and which is time-limited until the end of June. In response to urgent requests from several cantons, the Federal Council has deployed several thousand members of the army (max. 8,000), including 3,000 medical soldiers. At the cantons’ request, these are deployed in hospitals and logistics, but also to reinforce the Border Guard at national borders and airports. According to Art.185, paragraph 4 of the Federal Constitution, the Federal Council “may mobilise the armed forces in cases of emergency. Where it mobilises more than 4,000 members of the armed forces for active service or where the deployment of such troops is expected to last for more than three weeks, the Federal Assembly must be convened without delay.”
This is what the Federal Council has done. On 30 April, the Security Policy Committee of the Council of States (SPC-S) unanimously requested “approval of the Armed Forces Assistance Service in the context of measures to combat the Covid 19 pandemic” (20,035). It expresses its gratitude for this deployment to those responsible and to the members of the armed forces.”7
COVID-19-Health policy: expansion of testing as well as
sufficient supply of protective material
The most important proposals of the two Social Security and Health Committees (SSHC) for the special session:8
We look forward to the Federal Council’s current responses to these proposals.
What lessons for the future?
The Economic Affairs and Taxation Committee of the Council of States (EATC-S) by way of a postulate requests a Federal Council report on the economic consequences of the corona crisis and lessons drawn for the future:9
In other words, the EATC-S demands a comprehensive analysis of the Federal Council; questions 4 and 5 on the necessary measures and lessons for the future are particularly important. The question of self-sufficiency is on the agenda – not only with regard to sufficient protective masks and medical equipment. For example, the closure of smaller rural hospitals in favour of a few large hospitals in the cities must be thoroughly reconsidered: humans and their health must come first; such a thing cannot be tackled with pure cost-benefit considerations. It is also clear yet again that in a crisis, every state must first look after its own population, and this also applies to security of supply in terms of food and energy (see also National Councillors Yvette Estermann and Jacqueline Badran in their interviews).
“Shopping at the local clothing boutique instead of Zalando, at the nearby bookstore instead of Amazon, that would be helpful now and in the future. Otherwise, we’ll be at the end of our filigree structures anyway, and global chains will take over everything: the optics business, the restaurant, the hairdressing salon.” (National Councillor Jacqueline Badran)
Economic Committee of the National Council pushes for faster opening of businesses and public institutions – with some dissenting votes
In its press release of 22 April, the EATC-N acknowledges “that the Federal Council has given priority to health and epidemiological considerations in its decisions of 16 April 2020 on the gradual reopening of public facilities”. But now the normalisation of economic life must move forward. To this end, the committee has submitted three motions to the Council.10
In short, therefore, all economic activities should be resumed as quickly as possible, taking into account the epidemiological situation.
On 29 April, the Council of States EATC supported the last two motions, but rejected the first (opening of practically all institutions and smaller events) by 9 votes to 4: “The majority of the committee considers this to be a significant relaxation of the measures in force, which would probably lead to a renewed spread of the epidemic resulting in a fatal setback for the economy”.11
The parliamentarians’ concern about the state of the economy is understandable. But should not concern for people’s health come first? What are we going to do if, as a result of a too rapidly undertaken “normalisation”, the number of people infected and the number of deaths suddenly rises sharply?
It is interesting to note that all three motions were rejected in the National Council by the committee members of the Social Democrats and the Greens. (For their reasons see the interview with National Councillor Jacqueline Badran, Social Democrats, Zurich)
Legal basis for contact tracing apps and
resumption of citizens’ political participation
The National Council’s Political Institutions Committee (PIC-N) has with a large majority adopted a motion (20.3144) calling for a legal basis for contact tracing apps. The “COVID19 proximity tracing app” developed by the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne is to be used as of 11 May.
“It traces back who was in contact with a person tested positive for the new coronavirus and informs the persons concerned that they may have become infected.” The law is intended to regulate transparency and data protection, as well as to ensure that use of the app is voluntary.12
Direct democratic rights: On 20 March, the Federal Council issued an ordinance stipulating that deadlines for the submission of popular initiatives and referendums be suspended from 21 March to 31 May. Moreover, collection of signatures would not be allowed during this period.13 In addition, the referendum of 17 May was cancelled. On 29 April, the Federal Council decided that signatures could be collected again as of 1 June and that five federal proposals would be put to the vote on the following regular voting Sunday, 27 September: Limitation initiative, hunting act, tax deduction for third-party child care costs, purchase of new fighter jets as well as paternity leave (more details to follow later).
Resumption of the regular overall supervision
by the Control Committees (CC)
On 23 April, the CC-N held a debate with Federal Councillors Sommaruga, Berset and Parmelin on the management of the corona crisis. In its press release, it stated: “It is important that parliamentary superintendence is exercised in an appropriate manner, even in times of crisis, in order to preserve the institutional balance. As the body responsible for assessing the management of the Federal Council and the Federal Administration, the CCs have a central role to play in this respect”.14 (See also the interview with National Councillor Yvette Estermann)
“Yes, we have now seen that globalisation brings not only advantages but also disadvantages, and how important it is that self-sufficiency is once again given priority in Switzerland. Whether it is about medicines and medical supplies or even food, we should be concerned with what we want in the future.” (National Councillor Yvette Estermann)
A brief assessment of the situation from a constitutional and democratic perspective: The democratic structure in the Swiss federal state remains in force, so that the rule of law endures even in times of crisis. Everything else can be solved if these foundations are in right good order. •
1 See “Swiss Parliament wants to have a say – Special session from 4 to 8 May 2020 at the ‘Bernexpo’”, Current Concerns from 21 April 2020
2 The latest media releases from the parliamentary committees can be found (in German, French an Italian) at www.parlament.ch/de/services/suche-news
3 The most important measures were presented in Current Concerns of 21 April under the title “When it comes right down to it, you sit together and solve the problems”.
4 “Strong approval by the Finance Committee [of the National Council] for the Federal Council’s corona loans”. FC-N press release of 25 April 2020
5 “Broad approval by the Finance Committee [of the Council of States] for the Federal Council’s corona loans”. FC-S press release of of 28 April 2020
6 The Finance Delegation is responsible for the detailed examination and supervision of the entire financial budget. It is made up of three members of the National Council and three members of the Council of States, each of whom belongs to the Finance Committee of his or her respective Council.
7 “Clear support for the Armed Forces Assistance Service”. Media release SPC-S of 30 April 2020. Similar to the reaction of the National Council’s SPC, according to press release of 30 April 2020
8 “Federal government is to massively expand tests for coronavirus”. Press release SSHC-N of 18 April 2020. “Transparency of pandemic-related health care costs required”. press release SSHC-S of 21 April 2020
9 “Corona crisis: New recommendations of the EATC-S to the Federal Council”. press release of 21. April 2020
10 “EATC-N pleads for a rapid resumption of economic and social life”. press release of 22 April 2020
11 “EATC-S demands perspectives for the resumption of economic activity and social life”. press release of 29 April 2020
12 “Coronavirus: Use of contact tracing app only with legal basis.” Press release PIC-N of 23 April 2020
13 Ordinance of 20 March 2020 on the standstill of deadlines for federal referendums
14 “Corona crisis: CC-N holds first discussions with Federal President and heads of the FDHA and EAER”. press release of 23 April 2020
Committees are groups formed from a set number of members of parliament. They discuss the items of business before these are debated in the chamber, and they also make their own proposals. The National Council (N) has 12 standing committees, and the Council of States (S) has 11. The two chambers of parliament also have some joint committees.
The following comittees are mentioned in the article:
SSHC-S, SSHC-N: Social Security and Health Committees
SPC-S, SPC-N: Security Policy Committees
PIC-S, PIC-N: Political Institutions Committees
EATC-S, EATC-N: Economic Affairs and Taxation Committees
SECC-S, SECC-N: Science, Education and Culture Committee
FC-S, FC-N: Finance Committees
CC-S,CC-N: Control Committees
FinDel: Finance Delegation *
* The Finance Delegation is responsible for the detailed examination and supervision of the entire financial budget. It is made up of three members of the National Council and three members of the Council of States, each of whom belongs to the Finance Committee of his or her respective Council.
Interview with National Councillor Yvette Estermann, SVP Lucerne
Current Concerns: Ms National Councillor Estermann, what do you consider to be the most important questions that Parliament will have to address in the coming extraordinary session?
Yvette Estermann: We have scheduled the session to discuss business related to corona. It is mainly a debate on the measures and financial business that we will be dealing with.
It probably won’t be a big problem to reach an agreement, will it?
There won’t usually be any left-right blocks, because certain questions concern everyone. I think the financial proposals will be accepted. Everyone has acknowledged that the problems exist and that help is needed, but that will not stop many politicians from talking about it. It is also right that Parliament should resume its function.
You are a member of the CC (Control Committee) of the National Council. How does the CC perform its tasks in the current situation?
We have already held one meeting and three Federal Councillors, including the Federal President, were present and answered our questions. And they have really answered everything we wanted to know. So, the CC has started its work on corona, but it remains a big issue. For me, the most important thing is to draw the conclusion from the whole crisis afterwards: What went well, what went less? We cannot change what has happened, but we can offer a good decision guidance for the future. It is important that we take precautions for the future, so that if something similar or worse one day comes along, we are better prepared than now.
Direct democracy is currently practically at a standstill. The May referendum on the SVP’s limitation initiative will not take place. Is that rather good for you or not?
I have always done well in my life when I have said what’s done is done. The glass is half full, not half-empty, we see it as a chance. We have seen how we have been abandoned by our so-called friends around us, how goods that we had ordered and paid for have been blocked. That should make people think. So, I am not entirely unhappy that the vote has been postponed.
The corona crisis has shown that in the end every state looks after itself and that the EU has no solutions, quite the contrary. The nation states wanted to apply their own solutions. In Brussels it was only afterwards that people followed suit and talked a lot. What the EU really cannot do is to find solutions in times of crisis. You saw that in the refugee crisis, you see that now in the corona crisis, and the financial crisis they could not overcome anyway. People should start to know that the EU is a construct that is not viable. Particularly in crises, it is not suited to managing them and acting quickly.
Could the far-reaching experiences with Corona also be an occasion to think about how we want to live together in our country and in our world in the future?
Yes, we have now seen that globalisation brings not only advantages but also disadvantages, and how important it is that self-sufficiency is once again given priority in Switzerland. Whether it is about medicines and medical supplies or even food, we should be concerned with what we want in the future.
Thank you, Ms National Councillor Estermann, and all the best for the coming session. •
(Translation Current Concerns)
Interview with National Councillor Jacqueline Badran, SP Zurich
Current Concerns: Ms National Councillor Badran, what do you consider to be the most important issues that Parliament will have to tackle in the coming extraordinary session?
Jacqueline Badran: If one is committed to the goal of preserving structures, jobs and livelihood, then the first step should be to fill the gaps in economic policy measures. If we want to prevent mass bankruptcies and mass indebtedness of the small shops and restaurants, a significant rent waiver for the time of the lockdown must be decided. In addition, corrections to short-time work and an increase in compensation for holders and persons similar to holders from CHF 3,320 to the EO-level (income replacement regulations) of CHF 5,880 are required. Otherwise we cannot speak of livelihood security. It is also essential to fill the gaps for the self-employed indirectly affected.
You are a member of the EATC (Economic Affairs und Taxation Committee) of the National Council. The majority of your commission is in favour of three motions which urge a faster resumption of business activities than is foreseen by the Federal Council. You and other commissioners of the SP and the Greens did not support these three motions. Why not?
The background to these demands is not to help small businesses, but to avoid future tax increases for corporations. The commission majority wants people to be brought out of short-time work so as to prevent the federal government’s mountain of debt from growing any further. The debts of today are the taxes of tomorrow. This is a legitimate argument, but it should not be disguised as “commercial assistance”. You pretend that with a quick opening all economic problems are gone. However, it is of little help to the businesses because they will make significantly less turnover in the future than before the closure, simply because of the distance rules. In a hairdresser’s, where otherwise three people work, only one person can work in future. In the retail trade, except perhaps for seasonal products, sales are significantly lower, especially if schools do not open at the same time. Who goes shopping when the children are at home? Austria and Sweden show the same scene: open, but empty shops. The same applies to the food serving industry. So, the revenues will not be able to cover the costs incurred. That is why I am in favour of openings being based solely on the requirements of pandemic control and certainly not on a politically arbitrary date.
Could the fundamental experiences with corona also be an occasion to think about how we are going to live together in our country and in our world in the future?
Yes, I had and have that hope. But it has also been dampened. Politicians and the media suggest that opening up the market is a gradual “return to normality”. That should be the non-word of the year. What is happening now is the opposite of normality. We need completely new approaches and a change in consumer behaviour. Shopping at the local clothing boutique instead of Zalando, at the nearby bookstore instead of Amazon, that would be helpful now and in the future. Otherwise, we’ll be at the end of our filigree structures anyway, and global chains will take over everything: the optics business, the restaurant, the hairdressing salon. In short: thinking and acting in regional economic cycles would now be necessary, and this should become the new normal.
Thank you, Ms National Councillor Badran, und good luck in the session. •
(Translation Current Concerns)
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