Switzerland’s political DNA as a yardstick

EU policy and public service

by Dr iur. Marianne Wüthrich

“Switzerland is not an EU member for understandable reasons. It doesn’t fit its political DNA.” This statement in a recent newspaper interview comes from a German who lived in Switzerland for only two years. And yet he grasped – or guessed – something essential that is less clear to some Swiss. After the Federal Council had announced in May 2021 that it was breaking off negotiations with the EU on the Framework Agreement, because they had not led to satisfactory solutions, many citizens, politicians and even editors of the mainstream media initially expressed their relief. In the meantime, the EU turbos have once again sharpened their pencils and are given space in the mainstream media to mobilise for Switzerland’s closer integration into the EU. But that can’t scare us – we on the other side also have sharp pencils.
  Year after year, Switzerland’s good public service comes under attack. A year ago, in “Current Concerns”, we opposed further privatisation of the postal service and explained what the EU ban on state aid would mean for the public service.
1 At the turn of the year 2021/22, some journalists are now taking up the question the other way round: The remaining parts of the Post are to be put on an austerity course and successively privatised. This would take care of any contradictions with the EU ban on state aid by itself, if required.
  These two focal points are to be taken up here.

In a full-page newspaper article, the former head of SECO (State Secretariat for Economic Affairs), Jean-Daniel Gerber, once again serves us the indigestible chunks from the failed Framework Agreement and urges us to swallow them. Otherwise, he says, there is a risk that Switzerland “will slip into a third-country status comparable to that of some of its Eastern European neighbours”.2

“We don’t want to adopt the [...] directives passed in Brussels quasi automatically”

Ten years ago, Jean-Daniel Gerber had a very different opinion. At the time, he rejected Brussels’ view that Switzerland, as a beneficiary of the EU’s internal market, must “also abide by the rules that govern this market – not only the current rules, but also those of the future”. In contrast, he noted that Switzerland was not fully integrated into the internal market and, as a non-member of the EU, could not have a say in its future shape. Moreover, Switzerland was “one of the EU’s largest foreign trade partners and an important investor”. Gerber concluded in 2011: “Accordingly, we don’t want to adopt the laws and directives passed in Brussels quasi automatically.”3 Gerber’s arguments have lost none of their relevance today ...

30 years ago: Rejection of the EEA by the Swiss people

The precursor of the Framework Agreement, so to speak, was another framework that Brussels built 30 years ago for the integration of the four EFTA member states Norway, Liechtenstein, Iceland and Switzerland: The European Economic Area EEA. On 6 December 1992, accession to the EEA was narrowly rejected by the Swiss people (with 50.3 % against) and clearly rejected by the cantons (16 to 7) at the ballot box. This meant that the Federal Council’s application for full membership of the European Community (EC) was also off the table. As a result, Switzerland and the EU continued to settle their affairs bilaterally in their mutual interest.
  The fact that Brussels is now refusing to adapt individual agreements to the current status and to open up EU research and education programmes to Switzerland as a “punishment” for not signing the Framework Agreement is in breach of the treaty. But as I said – such imposing behaviour cannot scare us: We still have many plans B in our quiver.

Public service: counteracting neoliberal ambitions is called for

The high-quality Swiss public service is firmly anchored in the minds of the vast majority of the population and, thanks to direct democracy, can only be cracked in small pieces. But it requires the highest vigilance and the active commitment of us citizens to fight against the constantly threatening dismantling based on a return on investment-mindset that is not in line with human needs. Switzerland can afford first-class health care, top-quality public transport, post offices throughout the country and the urgently needed expansion of electricity production under the sovereignty of the cantons and communes. We taxpayers pay for it. So let us resist neoliberal theories according to which, for example, a large hospital is “more efficient” than several small ones – which, firstly, is not true (small units usually manage most economically) and, secondly, does not serve the needs of the rural and mountain population, nor of the workforce, i.e. the well-being of the whole community.
  Shortly before the turn of the year 2021/22, the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” took aim at the Swiss Post and listed a tough programme to “finally dust off the public service”.4 Firstly, PostFinance should be privatised, secondly, “the remaining monopoly of the Post should be abolished” (meaning the monopoly for letters up to 50 grammes), thirdly, “after PostFinance, the Post should also be released into entrepreneurial freedom”. And in conclusion: “A courageous reform is needed now, before Swiss Post is bled dry financially.”
  That means that we would leave our (still) well-functioning postal service to foreign corporations and at the same time pave the way to the EU. (see: “Excursus: Not all liberals are neoliberal!”) What preceded this: In January 2021, the Federal Council set up a commission of experts under the innocuous-sounding name “Further development of the basic service in the area of postal and payment services”. The commission is headed by Christine Egerszegi (FDP), a former member of the Council of States from Aargau, and is due to present its proposals at the beginning of 2022.5 We will read these with a magnifying glass.

“Outdated luxury” at Swiss Post?

Is a (nowadays anyway only limited) citizen-oriented service of Swiss Post “outdated luxury”, as the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” writes? Thanks to the connection of the letter and parcel traffic as well as the post bus sector with the payment transactions of PostFinance, Swiss Post has so far just not been bleeding to death, but has been cross-financed by the latter. However, anyone who expects returns from a public service operation rejects cross-financing in principle. In today’s times of zero and negative interest rates, cash transactions and deposits at the counter unfortunately no longer bring in much. In such times, the state has to cover any deficits: We taxpayers have a right to the socially responsible use of our tax money.
  Something else is also part of the public service: especially in our fast-moving and digitised times, many people appreciate a personal address at the post office counter or with the letter carrier. But this is precisely where there can be saved with the big ladle: “The Corona crisis has shown: Most of Swiss Post’s services can be handled just fine digitally,” said the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” from 29 December. In times of crisis, the digital trail is indeed better than nothing – but we don’t want to make distance learning the norm.

Do not jeopardise the “play of market forces” – “The EU has its eye on this”

Since 2013, Swiss post offices have been almost halved from 1657 to 902, while at the same time agencies (postal services in stores or at kiosks) have risen to 1185.6 Even more could be saved here, the authors write in the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”: “If the payment traffic mandate were removed, Swiss Post could waive own branches altogether. Another starting point would be that the letter carrier would no longer deliver letters every day, but only every second or third. [...] This would save 50 to 90 million Swiss francs annually.”
  According to the authors, this would also work in Sweden, where citizens receive their mail only every second day, and post offices for private customers have not existed for some time. This is where Brussels’ favorite child, competition, comes into play. Sweden and Denmark merged their state-owned postal operations in 2009 to form Postnord, and now the rules of the “free” market apply: “Postnord is financed by its operating business; for any deficits, funds must be raised on the capital market. If the two states inject money as owners, this must be done in such a way that the play of market forces is not jeopardised. The EU is keeping an eye on this.”

Consequence of privatisation: careless handling and poor service

However, according to the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”, Postnord’s reputation among customers has “suffered considerably” since privatisation: “The company is sometimes accused of negligent handling of letters and parcels and poor service.” That sounds familiar. Do you remember the privatisation of the railroads in Great Britain, as a result of which the tracks were no longer properly maintained and collisions and derailments became more frequent? We don’t want that kind of situation in Switzerland.
  Finally, a cautionary tale from our neighbouring country Liechtenstein: “As a member of the EEA, Liechtenstein is obliged to completely liberalise the postal market”. Therefore, the letter monopoly up to 50 grammes is to be abolished, and postal services may be provided in the future “by anyone, provided that the requirements specified in the law are met.” In order to ensure a nationwide, high-quality and inexpensive basic service despite the competition prescribed by Brussels, there is to be a “universal service provider” instead of the state postal service (a splendid bureaucratic un-word!).7 For the time being, the postal service may take over this provider, as long as no cheaper one can be found.
  Conclusion: The small state of Liechtenstein has eleven municipalities, so there is no need for competition for the postal service. It is absurd to abolish the state postal service in this small, prosperous and well-ordered state just because Liechtenstein joined the EEA in 1995 – why actually? – and Brussels wants to push through for the heck of it its stubborn bureaucracy. For us Swiss, it is advisable to consider whether we would prefer to remain a “third country”, with plans B wherever we deem it necessary and useful. For this, we do not need an institutional framework – and certainly not the sell-out of our good public service.  •

1 Wüthrich, Marianne. “Keep the service public in the hands of the sovereign! No sell-out to EU major corporations”. In: Current Concerns No 28/29 of 24 December 2020
2 Gerber, Jean-Daniel. “Europapolitik: Die Schweiz darf nicht in den Drittlandstatus relegiert werden.” (European policy: Switzerland must not be relegated to third-country status.) In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 27 December 2021
3 Spescha, Geli. “Im Gespräch mit alt Staatssekretär Jean-Daniel Gerber: Wie Reformen erfolgreich angehen?” (In conversation with former State Secretary Jean-Daniel Gerber: How to tackle reforms successfully?) In: Die Volkswirtschaft of 1 April 2011
4 Eisenring, Christoph. “Die Schweiz leistet sich bei der Post einen überholten Luxus – und schafft so einen ‘Service sans public’” (Switzerland Affords Outdated Luxury at the Post Office – Creating a ‘Service sans public’) In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 29 December 2021
5 “Christine Egerszegi übernimmt Leitung der Expertenkommission Grund-versorgung Post” (Christine Egerszegi takes over as head of the Expert Commission on Basic Postal Services.) Federal Council media release dated of 20 January 2021
6 Belz, Nina; Eisenring, Christoph; Hermann, Rudolf; Rasch, Michael. “Wie viel Service public soll es sein? Während die Schweiz darüber streitet, klingelt in Schweden der Postbote nur noch jeden zweiten Tag” (How much public service should there be? While Switzerland is arguing about it, in Sweden the letter carrier rings only every other day.) In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 29 December 2021
7 Meier, Günther. “Liechtensteins Post verliert das Monopol über die Briefpost” (Liechtenstein’s Post Office Loses Monopoly over Letter-Mail). In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 27 December 2021

Excursus: Not all liberals are neoliberal!

mw. In order to do justice to the Swiss liberals, it should be noted that most of them flirt with more privatization of the public service. But this does not mean that FDP politicians and liberal entrepreneurs are in favour of the Framework Agreement or even EU accession in order to achieve this goal more easily with the help of the ban on EU subsidies.
  In winter 2020/21, when it was a question of to be or not to be of the Swiss model would survive, many young and older personalities of different political persuasions from business and politics went public and said no to the framework agreement and yes to Switzerland. They heralded the end of the disastrous negotiations with Brussels. Among them were also liberals, first and foremost former Federal Councillor Johann Schneider-Ammann.

see also: Wüthrich, Marianne.  “Something is happening in Switzerland’s direct democracy” More and more voices call for a fresh start with Brussels.” in: Current Concerns No. 2 of 5 February 2021

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