EU and China policy, GM-moratorium – and once again the Covid-19 Act

Exciting news from Berne

by Dr iur. Marianne Wüthrich

In the current winter session of the Swiss parliament, a number of things have already been discussed and decided that should be of interest, not only to our readers in Switzerland. In the budget debate, the National Council rejected the proposal of its Foreign Affairs Committee to increase cohesion payments to the EU, thus backing the Federal Council ‘s EU policy. The same committees’ attempt to introduce a compulsory “human rights dialogue” with China was adopted by the National Council but stopped by the Council of States. The extension of the moratorium on genetic engineering for agricultural products was in principle approved in both chambers for a further four years, but with an attempt at softening that will still have to be clarified. The Covid-19 Act is being revised again already in this session (as in every previous one since the spring of 2020), with most of its provisions limited until the end of 2022. On this topic, it is also necessary to look back at the referendum of 28 November on the thus far valid version of the Covid-19 Act.

The 2022 budget was approved by the Council of States in just three hours on 30 November and by the (larger and more talkative) National Council in an extraordinarily short eight hours with only a few amendments on 1 December; the settlement of the remaining disagreements is on the agenda for the second and third week of the session. The many expenditure items to deal with the Corona crisis reduced the parliament‘s leeway, and Federal Councillor Ueli Maurer, head of the Finance Department, urged austerity. 

National Council says no to doubling of the cohesion billion 

Although austerity is the order of the day, the National Council‘s Foreign Affairs Committee came up with a plan to “round up” the cohesion funds to the EU approved by both chambers of parliament in September from around CHF 1 billion to CHF 2 billion. The same National Councillors who had, disappointed and mortified, complained about the arrogance and ingratitude of the EU grandees after their recent visit to Brussels (see Current Concerns No. 27 of 7 December 2021), now actually wanted to convince their Councillor-colleagues that it might be possible to propitiate the gentlemen in Brussels by stumping up even more money. To this end, the Commission majority put forward the following proposal for the Federal Council to use as a decoy, so to speak, in Brussels: 

Art. 8a (new) [...].

1 The approved framework credit of CHF 1046.9 million shall be increased by CHF 953.1 million if the association agreements between Switzerland and the European Union for participation in the current EU programmes Horizon Europe, Digital Europe, ITER, Euratom and Erasmus+ can be signed by 30 June 2022.1 

In justifying the motion, Roland Fischer (GLP, LU) properly read the riot act to the Federal Council: he said that the Federal Council had “irresponsibly“ broken off the negotiations on the Framework Agreement, and that the Green-Liberal Group was “shocked by the Federal Council’s obvious inability to act in European policy” and, with the second billion, wanted to “give it an instrument” for the negotiations. Federal Councillor Ueli Maurer left no doubt about the unsuitability and undesirability of this instrument: with such a “quick shot”, Switzerland would only embarrass itself in Brussels and “certainly not get access to Horizon”. He moved for the motion to be rejected.
  The National Council did so with 93 nays and 84 ayes. With its vote of “No”, the National Council took a stand. Against the majority of its Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC-N), it backed the Federal Council and supported its EU policy. As the proposal has thus already failed in the first chamber, it will not reach the Council of States. 

Promotion of human rights by means of interference in the affairs of another state? 

Another failed FAC-N proposal is the motion “Promotion of human rights in China” (Motion 21.3965). According to this, the Federal Council should ensure that human rights be “consistently addressed in all bilateral and multilateral meetings and talks with China at all hierarchical levels”. The Swiss embassy and consulates in China are to increase their human rights staff and support Chinese “actors” in their commitment to human rights. Swiss companies and institutions are to be encouraged by means of an “advisory service” to “maintain human rights conformity” in their activities in China. 
    This massive intervention in the internal affairs of another state (and in the personal freedom of the Swiss who are “to be advised”!) was approved by the National Council on 14 September 2021 by 106 votes to 81 after a brief discussion. Only National Councillor Hans-Peter Portmann (FDP, ZH) noted in the debate that “very strong China-bashing” was already noticeable in the APK (of which he is a member). The liberal banker explained: “We will not be able to do without China, and we would do well not to forget this. We should try to make a step forward with China in a fruitful way, also on human rights and international law issues.” Of course, business interests are at play in this consideration, yet an approach towards equivalence can be sensed here. 
  Fortunately, such problematic decisions can be corrected in the Swiss state system. This is what the Council of States did on 8 December. It followed its own Foreign Affairs Committee, which had, by 6 votes to 4, recommended the motion to be rejected. By 29 votes to 11, the Council of States massively rejected this proposal to teach China human rights, come hell or high water. This settled the matter. Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis had pointed out that Switzerland is already in dialogue with China at many levels on the subject of human rights and also exchanges experiences with Swiss companies in China, but: “Here, too, it is always important to remain in a bilateral relationship. ‘It takes two to tango.’”2 
  On the duty of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, we give the floor to international law expert Professor Dr Hans Köchler: “The general obligation of states to conduct their relations in a peaceful manner implies mutual respect and non-interference in their internal affairs. This also follows from the principle of sovereign equality of states, which includes the right of every state to conduct its affairs according to its own traditions and on the basis of its specific conditions and priorities.
  In view of these universal norms, proclaimed by the United Nations as its guiding purposes and principles, the enjoyment of human rights cannot, and must not, be subordinated to the conduct of power politics.”3 
  It is true that the small state of Switzerland does not pursue power politics, but many Swiss, including some members of parliament, unfortunately allow themselves to be impressed by the crumbling superpower on the other side of the Atlantic, which is fighting to the death against the emerging powers of China and Russia – and not for reasons of human rights! The so-called summit for democracy, which the US government is currently staging, is going down the same road. Switzerland – despite the exclusion of all unpopular states by Washington! – wants to take part and send President Guy Parmelin. I wonder if our commitment to perpetual neutrality has been “forgotten” in Berne. 

Extension of the GM moratorium for agriculture

In Switzerland, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) may only be cultivated for research purposes. On 27 November 2005, over 55 per cent of the voters and all cantons approved the federal popular initiative “For food from GMO-free agriculture” (moratorium for five years). Since then, Parliament has extended the moratorium three times in accordance with the will of the people, for the last time until December 2021. On 23 September 2021, the National Council extended the moratorium until the end of 2025 with 144 votes in favour, 27 against and 19 abstentions. The Green Liberal Martin Bäumle proposed to break the ban: according to the new Art. 37a para. 2 of the “Federal Law on Genetic Engineering in Non-Human Areas”, “genetically modified organisms to which no transgenic genetic material has been inserted” might be used under certain conditions “for agricultural, horticultural or forestry purposes”. The majority of the National Council, however, rejected the mixing of research and agricultural cultivation and was in favour of extending the moratorium without exceptions.4
  In the winter session, the Council of States also approved the extension of the moratorium until the end of 2025. Unfortunately, however, it approved the above-mentioned exemption by an extremely narrow decision (21 yes to 21 no, with a casting vote by the president).5 So it would seem that in this way, genetic engineering may enter Switzerland’s production agriculture through a back door.

  Maya Graf (Greens, BL), member of the Council of States and organic farmer, who was one of the successful initiators of the moratorium on genetic engineering in 2005, commented in detail on the negative consequences of such a derogation: using various examples from research, she pointed out that important data from release trials of genetically modified organisms were still missing, and that there were also unresolved patent issues. The new exemption provision would be “a quick fix” that would serve neither agriculture nor consumers, nor plant research and breeding. Maya Graf asked her colleagues in the Council to vote for the moratorium without the new exemption clause and instead to continue to allocate funds for organic and biological plant breeding: “We are all agreed on one thing: we must have robust, site-appropriate plants for agriculture and for the future of Switzerland’s food.”
  The Basel-Landschaft councillor was supported by Federal Councillor Simonetta Sommaruga, who also pointed out the many unanswered questions in the field of genetic engineering and warned: “Ultimately, it is always about the modification of the genome, which can then also have these unintended effects with potentially undesirable consequences, not only for ecology, for nature, but also for the health of humans, animals and the environment. These risks are simply still too little known.” Sommaruga added that the coexistence with non-genetically modified plants was also unclear in the small-scale Swiss agriculture. And particularly alarming: “Genetically modified insects, bacteria or viruses without foreign genetic material that can be used for pest control would also no longer be affected by the moratorium. [...] All these genetically modified organisms could therefore be approved for agricultural, forestry and horticultural production. Genetically modified viruses in use in Swiss agriculture: you decide on this today if you agree with the Commission majority.”
  In view of these facts, it is surprising that half of the members of the Council of States want to open this Pandora’s box. The issue now goes back to the National Council, which will hopefully stick to its clear rejection of genetically modified organisms in Swiss agriculture in spring 2022. According to the secretary of the committee with the primary responsibility, the federal administration will not approve any experimental projects until the law has been adjusted.

Covid-19 Act: referendum and new parliamentary resolutions

On 28 November, Swiss voters clearly approved the Covid-19 Act for the second time at the ballot box. The referendum campaign had been fought with no holds barred. Particularly on the side of the opponents, slogans had been circulating that sort quite ill with Switzerland, where citizens are called upon to help shape politics responsibly – for example, “We will not be divided!” “No compulsory vaccination!” The result of the vote shows: Common sense prevailed and we, the Swiss citizens, did not allow ourselves to be divided. The Covid-19 Act was accepted by 62 per cent of the voters, and this across the country: there was neither a “Rösti divide” (French-speaking Switzerland/German-speaking Switzerland) nor an urban-rural divide. Only in two cantons was the law rejected by a majority.
  On the other hand, we have to “handle” the 38 per cent who voted nay “with care”, says political scientist Professor Wolf Linder inthe “Echo der Zeit”.6 It is normal that the voting campaign is somewhat excessive now and then. “What was completely new, however, was that opponents of the new draft were now proceeding to cast doubt on the entire voting procedure, i. e. the referendum, direct democracy.” Linder added that among many people today “trust in the political system is lacking”. 
  How can this trust be restored? Through a better information policy of the authorities, according to Wolf Linder, and precisely through a “careful treatment of those defeated”: “Direct democracy is, after all, something wonderful, it settles a conflict in that the result of the vote is a final result that no one doubts. But at the same time it is difficult for the defeated to come to terms with it. But it has actually always been a characteristic [of Swiss politics] that the losers have accepted the result, yet the winners have tried to come to terms with the losers” 
  In the winter session, the National Council and the Council of States are now once again working on adapting the Covid-19 Act to the current requirements of the increasingly severe pandemic. In doing so, they are striving to “handle the population with care", i.e. they are trying to meet as many needs as possible”. The Council of States extended the urgent federal law until the end of 2022 on 1 December, the National Council did so on the following day. The motion to extend it only until the end of June was clearly rejected in both chambers; in the National Council, even the SVP joined the majority, in view of the voting result of 28 November and the current fierce course of the pandemic.
  Both Councils decided – partly against more restrictive proposals of the Federal Council – on the payment of income replacement if a job cannot be performed due to Corona measures, the extension of compensation in the case of unemployment and short-time work as well as contributions to the sports and cultural sector. The Council of States also extended the article on political rights: In order to facilitate the collection of signatures for referendums and popular initiatives, these can also be submitted without certification by the communes next year; certification will be obtained by the Federal Chancellery after the collection deadline. The National Council also decided, among other things, “that the Confederation should again assume the costs of Corona tests” (the abolition of free tests in November had led to fierce protests), and it improved data protection in contact tracing.7 
  Despite the pandemic, Switzerland is not in a bad financial position, thanks to the debt brake and the reserves built up in previous years, and parliament will be doing well to budget the necessary health policy and economic support measures for next year as well. In this way, our politicians have done their part to strengthen social peace. But the willingness of the entire population to overcome the crisis by joining forces is needed. It was a joy to see how mutual help blossomed in the spring of 2020, especially among young people. Even if the pandemic has already lasted longer than we would have wished, it is still possible today to give priority to consideration for our fellow human beings. In the process, our own desires and covetousness may fade a little.  

1 21.041 Budget 2022: Switzerland’s participation in the enlargement of the European Union 2019–2024. Motion of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council (FAC-N) of 22 November 2021.
21.3965 Motion FAC-N. Promotion of human rights in China
3 Prof Dr Dr h. c. mult. Köchler, Hans. “Human Rights and Peaceful Co-existence among States: Universality – Diversity – Dialogue”. In: Current Concerns of 11 May 2021
4 21.049. Genetic Engineering Act. Amendment. Debate in the National Council on 23 September 2021 (SDA report).
Council of States exempts genome editing from GM moratorium. Debate in the Council of States on 2 December 2021 (SDA news item).
Scheidegger, Christina. Covid-19 Act: “I have never seen such mistrust”. Interview with Prof. Wolf Linder, political scientist emeritus at the University of Bern. Radio SRF, Echo der Zeit of 29 November 2021
7“ National Council and Council of States discuss amendments to COVID 19 Act“. Debate in the Council of States. SDA messageof 1 December 2021; debate in the National Council. SDA message of 2 December 2021

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