“The armed neutrality is the right system for Switzerland as a small state”

Reflections on the situation of Switzerland

Interview with National Councillor Ruedi Lustenberger

In the following interview last year’s National Council President Ruedi Lustenberger presents his reflections on the situation in Switzerland. They are about the significance of the 1 August for him and our country, especially at a time at which we face major challenges. He attaches particular importance to direct democracy and armed neutrality, which – together with other foundations of our state – are responsible for the successful model Switzerland.

Current Concerns: How important is the 1 August for you?

National Councillor Ruedi Lustenberger: For me, this federal holiday is the most important recurring national event of the Confederation. As far as I remember back to my earliest childhood, the 1 August has always meant a lot to me. In 2014 it was my wish as the acting President of the National Council to hold my 1 August-speech in Romanesque Switzerland. The commune of Disentis invited me spontaneously and it was a very nice event, there in the Surselva. Back to your question: the 1 August has always had a high priority in our family and commune. This can probably be explained by my parents’ biography and the local history.

Could you explain that a bit more in detail?

I was born and grew up in the house at Romoos, where I still live today together with my wife and family. Romoos, a large mountain commune in the Entlebuch, covers an area of 37 km2, which is about the same size as the Canton of Basel-City, but it has only 700 inhabitants compared to 180,000 inhabitants living in the city. This is a nice example of how varied our country is. The Confederation needs both, Basel because of its economic and financial power, and Romoos as the recreation area, which the commune provides for the people from the metropolitan area. Probably it is this very unity in diversity that makes the success of Switzerland, which is why we are still doing relatively well today.

To what extent have your parents influenced your view of the 1 August?

My father graduated from the military training school in 1943 and then rendered active service. When I was a little boy, he told me many stories about that time. He had a good patriotic attitude and revered Henri Guisan, not only as a general, but also as a statesman. Influenced by his patriotic attitude, my father was convinced that the armed neutrality was absolutely the right system for Switzerland as a small state.
My mother grew up as a farmer’s daughter in Hergiswil on Lake Lucerne. From their farm they had a beautiful view on Lake Lucerne. When I was a little boy she told me the Swiss history and myths about Lake Lucerne. From her I learned at pre-school time, what and where the Rütli is, where the Tellsplatte and Hohle Gasse are. In parallel to my father’s image of Switzerland, I learned from her about the mythical side of Switzerland. And these myths of Schiller’s “William Tell” fascinated me incredibly as a boy. As a 6-year-old I knew this story and could show, where the Rütli and the Hohle Gasse are on the map of Switzerland. The thought of the lovely, peaceful and united Switzerland was instilled in me by my mother. My father’s image of the Confederation, which is willing to defend its freedom as a neutral country, this defensibility, fitted excellently to my mother’s view. The parental civic education at pre-school age has influenced me and accompanied me all through my whole life.

How do you feel about it today?

When after 24 years in politics, I analyze the situation at that cantonal and federal level, today I conclude the longer the more that my parents have given me a good image of our country. My father had a one-man carpenter’s business in the mountain village of Romoos, and there I experienced a beautiful, free youth without any luxury, which indeed was quite normal at that time. Our modest, overall satisfaction is no longer prevalent in the society of today. It gave way to a kind of carefree arbitrariness and convenience. These are auspices that are worrying me.

When we think about Switzerland, today, what can we say about the state of the country? Where are we today?

In this regard, two statements are important, which have always been helpful in my political work. One comes from the French philosopher Claude Levi-Strauss, who once is said to have remarked: “A nation which does not know where it comes from, does not know where to go.” It is a kind of retrospective for the future. The other quote is from the former Councillor of States Franz Muheim, a thoroughly liberal, conservative mind from the Canton of Uri. In his book “Die Schweiz, Aufstieg oder Niedergang” (Switzerland, rise or decline), he wrote, “In all cases, it would be unrealistic to try to escape the realities of the great world, whatever their nature may be.” Levi-Strauss and Franz Muheim did not say the same. Muheim has clarified Levi-Strauss in some respect. When I put together both statements, this means that we are well advised if we reflect our origins and this way become aware of the quality and the ideals of our own national history. Then we also know where to go. This also expresses in a sense, where we should not go.

What is the significance of these ideas for your political work?

In my political work I have followed both guidelines, although it was not always easy. Especially with respect to the point where the nation Switzerland should go and where it should not go. At the moment we have indeed a desirable debate about our past. One can argue about the details of the formation of the Confederation. The fact that the related myths have actually impressed the memory of the Swiss population actually only after 1848, when the loose confederation of states became a state, leads to the conclusion that one ironically may leave the intellectual dispute about jota and spot to the scribes. Much more important is the national message that every country has its heroes. If they are more than 800 years old, then the dispute is more a L’art pour l’art discussion about periods and commas. Peter Maurer, the president of the ICRC, has put it in a nutshell during an interview when he said, “Myths unfold a tremendous history-shaping effect. They are a reality and create identity.” In today’s mindset dominated by globalisation, man reaches out for something that creates identity for the country that he loves and in which he lives. And so it would be unwise to talk away myths because this would do the country and its people a disservice.

What are difficulties that we face in our country and which path should we go given our historical experience?

Well, I would like to return to Claude Levi-Strauss and Franz Muheim. The really big challenges that Switzerland faces lie beyond our borders.
Domestically, we have our country quite well on course, although we are constantly criticising ourselves. As compared to international standards, we are doing quite well. The biggest domestic challenge is that we must renew our inter-generation contract and that we must become increasingly aware again, what a genuine inter-generational contract is. That will not be brought about without painful cuts on both sides. The second problem is our domestic security policy, which is a guarantee for our armed neutrality. Today, it is traded under its state-political value. We would do well to give back our army the status it had 30, 40 years ago. Our children and descendants will one day be grateful for doing so.

What about foreign policy?

In foreign policy the problems are greater. We cannot escape the effects of modern migration. There are very many migrants, but only a small part of them can claim asylum status in the original sense, according to the asylum concept of World War II. The current global migration has become economically motivated to a major part.

What does this mean for the individual, but also for the country at which the refugees are now arriving?

One cannot be angry with individuals who migrated and are now looking for a better home or a more pleasant location in the world than they have at home. The question is, how does Switzerland handle this problem, and how do we interpret the stipulated term “asylum”. Only in a few individual cases can one compare asylum seekers who come to us from Africa today, to Jewish refugees, who fled the Nazi regime and stood at our borders. Many politicians refuse to admit that this situation is different, against their own better judgment, because in their view the situation must correspond with the social gospel that has been announced for more than half a century. From a national political view point there is another problem, namely that the Swiss state of law isn’t capable – or not willing – of enforcing its laws when it comes to the many thousands of undocumented migrants. In addition, the treaties of “Schengen” and “Dublin” prove to be blue-sky papers, the longer the more. Schengen is worth as much as its outer borders were actually protected, and Dublin as much as the states actually fulfilled their obligation to re-admit refugees.

In foreign policy we are facing further challenges. The relationship with the EU, the euro crisis, which also afflict our economy badly. How can Switzerland go its own way while observing independence and sovereignty?

The recent past has taught us clearly that we have to defend and maintain our own currency. Basically we are not suffering from the Swiss franc’s strength but from the euro’s weakness. The citizen of course does not realise any difference whether we now call it strength of the franc or weakness of the euro, when regarding the final effect, it is exactly the same. Considered from a political point of view, from the standpoint of national banks and the economies it is clearly a euro weakness. That is not God-given, but homemade. The construct “euro” was highly controversial even before its introduction. Today there is evidence that Mitterand had urged Germany to adopt the euro. The deal was that in turn, Mitterand did not oppose the German reunification. We must acknowledge frankly, that this was a master stroke that Kohl and his predecessors accomplished, at that time. It is questionable whether Mitterrand would claim paternity for the euro today with the same fervour. His “baby” has definitely not advanced as well as Kohl’s German reunification.

If we stick to your image – what has gone wrong with the “education” of the euro?

Mitterrand and his Socialist fellow Europeans did neglect a simple national economic doctrine: They thought they would be able to unite a dozen different kinds of economic systems with different economic capacities and different political mechanisms under a single currency, without providing clear guidelines for the access criteria. Let alone the fact that in case of non-compliance reasonable sanctions were stipulated and then applied.
There are three key points, which they paid too little attention to:
1.    The access criteria that were handled completely differently.
2.    The necessary standardisation. If you have one currency, there must also be compatible economic systems throughout the currency area.
3.    The worst mistake was that they could not sanction, they let the whole thing go as it liked and ultimately run to ruin, that way. I would neither attribute Mitterand nor his colleagues so much national economic naivety. In fact, they neglected important issues only to follow a higher premise, and that was: unity, unity, centralism.
This might be explainable taking one aspect into account, then and today: It was and is the geopolitical or geo-strategic situation in which specifically Greece, but probably also Spain or Portugal are, today. One can say that the euro fathers had visions, and they put their visions above the economic laws. This may be an apology today, but ultimately I come to the conclusion anyway that it was an error of judgment and a wrong strategic decision. Today, those nations are happy which are not held hostage by the euro.

What does all that mean for our country?

If you look at the constellation in more detail, the Confederation nevertheless finds itself in a coupling and dependence in two respects that one must not underestimate. First, we are members of the IMF in which we participate with 1.4 per cent of the capital and actions. With every billion that Greece or any other country is rewarded by the IMF and is not able to repay, the Swiss National Bank is in fact involved with 14 million francs, after all. Thus Swiss national wealth is getting lost. That is the one thing, the second is even more crucial. The more problematic the euro-conglomerate is represented in the international monetary system and the weaker the euro is, the stronger becomes the Swiss franc. We have been experiencing the impact of this for some time, now. That is why we are de facto also affected, although we are not members of the euro zone.

What would the path for Switzerland be?

I would like to mention Muheim again. Even if we liked to, we cannot escape the reality of the big wide world. Nevertheless, we must always strive to go our separate, sovereign way. The direct-democratic instruments of referendum and initiative are good instruments to avoid hasty decisions. In parallel, the two institutionalised values of federalism and subsidiarity must not be degraded but strengthened. Especially the subsidiarity – the step-by-step involvement in responsibility – is a good response to a pervasive policy of arbitrariness, indifference and convenience.

What are the effects of this arbitrariness and convenience policy?

Many people in Switzerland are either interested in Switzerland’s policies too little or not at all; they probably do not really care what happens to the euro and the franc. We have already become accustomed to the convenience of a single currency in many parts of Europe, to the amenities of the open borders and the international, globalised tourism. People take a critical look at it far too little, if at all. We are far too little aware that a comfortable attitude also has its downside. This is: the threat to internal security. Something I have not only noticed in society, but also in politics today, is a pervasive arbitrariness. People are infected by arguments in certain situations which may apply in any current, succinct matter, but then they distance themselves from their core values, their private profile, their own origins. And here I come back to Levi-Strauss, who says: “A nation which does not know where it comes from, does not know where to go.” We should use the anniversary year 2015 in order to remind ourselves of this fact. In the coming years, we are well advised to become increasingly aware of our origin, where we come from. Then we also know better where to go and where definitely not.

Mr National Councillor Lustenberger, thank you very much for the interview.     •

(Interview Thomas Kaiser)