“Secret contracts are incompatible with our political system.”

Interview with National Councillor Lukas Reimann, Swiss People’s Party, SVP

Current Concerns: What do you consider problematic about these agreements which are being planned?

National Councillor Lukas Reimann: There are especially two things about them which bother me. Many people feel that it is a matter of a new free trade agreement, dealing with the dismantling of tariffs or of trade barriers. However, this is not the case. It is not a free trade agreement. Otherwise one might be in favour of it under some circumstances.

What is it then?

It is an agreement to dismantle non-tariff barriers to trade. This is dangerous, because American corporations would then have the right to take legal action, e.g. against the state. It is true that there is no clearly defined jurisdiction as yet, but we do not know how it will come out in the end.
It is possible that data protection and even consumer protection in Switzerland may constitute a barrier to trade, just like the moratorium on genetically modified organisms in agriculture that the Swiss people introduced democratically by way of a popular initiative, or like our strict animal welfare rules. And in this way, as absurd as it may sound, the sovereignty of our country and the direct participation of its citizens will ultimately be a trade barrier. Legal action may then be taken against this. As soon as we have signed the contract, this alone is valid and overrides Swiss direct democracy. Direct democracy is undermined. The people may then repeatedly vote against something, but if, according to the contract, it is a barrier to trade, direct democracy is rendered inoperative.

That would be a total encroachment on our political system from the outside?

Yes, that is what worries me. If the Swiss people advocate it, then it is their right to do that. But it cannot be tolerated that Swiss achievements, Swiss referendums become obsolete because of such a contract. Take agriculture. It is, after all, a big advantage for our agriculture, if our food is clean, and even more so for us, the citizens. If the contract then says the quality standards in Switzerland are a barrier to trade, then that would be a bitter pill we should have to swallow.

Would that then expand to very many areas?

We cannot even begin to estimate all the areas where this would come into play. But you will afterwards be able to say this is an obstacle to trade in almost every area. It may even be possible that we could lose our social achievements entirely, such as worker protection and the like.

Who decides in disputes? What about the question of jurisdiction?

It will certainly be no Swiss court which renders judgements. At best, it will be a new-formed international committee. It will be a mixed committee making its decisions according to the principle of majority rule. Then a dispute may end with 10 Americans and 7 Europeans voting in favour of the issue and perhaps 3 Europeans against it. Then the case has been decided without the other side having the slightest chance. The Swiss position would not be represented.

Up to now, there has been no open discussion. Only very little is known, but what we do know, is not very positive. What is your opinion about this secrecy?

That is correct – the negotiations are not at all transparent. The popularly elected parliament, our National Council and Federal Council, are not even informed. In the end, we will be presented with a “fait accompli” and we will then only be able to say Yes or No. This does not in the least correspond to my understanding of democracy. In case anything happens to be leaked, it is not official. Sure enough, the mode and method of this procedure arouses suspicions. Keeping things hidden and not disclosing them, may lead to the conclusion that you have something to hide and that this is the reason for your wanting to negotiate everything behind closed doors. I often get e-mails where people ask what TTIP is and whether it concerns our country. And of course it does also concern our country.

Switzerland is not present at the TTIP negotiations. The US, Canada and the EU are conducting the negotiations. What does that mean for our country?

Federal Councillor Schneider-Amman said that Switzerland had a partial observer status, however, without a say. He thinks that Switzerland has to participate because the US market is of no small importance for our country. Switzerland needs to co-sign, otherwise there might be an import ban on Swiss products. So we should now defend ourselves and try to present and advocate our position. Otherwise we will be presented with a fait accompli.

But that is almost like blackmail! In case Switzerland participated, could there be a referendum?

The AUNS (Movement for an Independent and Neutral Switzerland) launched the popular initiative “International Treaties before the People”. Had this initiative been accepted, it would be quite clear that this treaty must be submitted to the people, the voters, to decide upon. Now it is a process of weighing the pros and cons and the Federal Council has a large scope of action. They can always decide whether a treaty is more or less important. If they say it is not really so important, then this treaty is not even submitted to an optional referendum. But it should be a core requirement that a treaty or contract of such great importance must be subject to the mandatory referendum. Here the people must be able to decide. That is also what our Swiss Federal Constitution says: If we join an international organisation, this accession must necessarily be submitted to the people for vote. And in actual fact, if we participate in these treaties, this would equal the accession to an international organisation.

What are the arguments presented by the Federal Council?

The Federal Council is acting as if it were a free trade agreement although, of course, it is clearly not. These agreements are not subject to a referendum. The left wing-parties wanted to launch a referendum on the free trade agreement with China. I was in favour of the people being entitled to decide at the ballot box. The majority was against it, and, therefore, there will never be a voting on the free trade agreement with China. The danger is that the proponents of the agreements with the USA and the EU want to smuggle them past the Swiss electorate.

Raising once again the question of jurisdiction within the framework of TTIP or TiSA: will it not be foreign judges who are ultimately going to decide?

Quite clearly, it will be American jurisdiction (American case law) which ultimately applies. With those agreements it will be foreign judges who will have the ultimate say on almost every important matter. As I said before, the agreement is so wide-ranging that it may also have an impact on issues such as data protection, consumer protection, worker’s rights, etc. As a result the achievements in protecting citizens that we are used to take for granted may be jettisoned. In the end this could go so far that the Swiss old age pension (AHV) might be considered a barrier to trade for private insurers. This can be extended very far indeed. Depending on the terms of the agreement an American large-scale corporation may even hit upon the idea of offering a pension scheme (an old-age provision) in Switzerland. If the agreement permitted something of the kind, the foundations of our peaceful and democratic coexistence would be lost.

In the case of TiSA, Switzerland is also present at the negotiating table. Is it, therefore, better positioned?

Behind this is the Swiss economy’s long-standing wish of offering its services on the EU market. The EU has always linked this issue with that of banking secrecy and has offered to grant us access in return for the lifting of our bank customer confidentiality. At the time, this was not negotiable for Switzerland. Now the banking secrecy has been lifted but no quid pro quo has come forward in exchange for it and for incomprehensible reasons the Swiss government has not even made an attempt at claiming it. If we sacrifice banking confidentiality, they ought to grant us access to the services market in return. Switzerland has made another attempt at it, but the EU has warded it off being no longer interested in it, as they say. For large scale enterprises in Switzerland this poses no problem, but for smaller and medium-sized enterprises (SME’s) which want to offer their products in areas near the border, it is quite difficult. Switzerland should indeed have access to the services market but TiSA is not the right route to take.

What could be the alternative then?

If at all, Switzerland ought to negotiate with the European States and not with the USA as umbrella organization of the whole structure.
What happens to our achievements based on the general interest such as water and electricity supply, postal services, etc.? Until now we have succeeded in maintaining much of our state-owned hydro-power. Would all this have passed away if we joined TiSA?
Switzerland is one of the world’s water reservoirs, and we know that water is becoming increasingly rare. Therefore, the international powers have an interest to gain full access to it by international agreements, to control it or at best to purchase it. They will certainly attempt to be granted access by TiSA. Seeing how the USA have behaved towards Switzerland over the last years I see no reason why we should go even only a small step to accommodate them and to grant them access. Apart from that, we also know what happens if you enter into agreements with the Americans. We comply with them whilst for the Americans their own laws still apply, and we are supposed kindly to abide by them. Situations of this nature we must prevent, they are already going very far indeed. From my point of view one should not even negotiate there. I cannot see any benefits for Switzerland so far, but I do perceive a danger. If the agreements between the USA and the EU are in fact concluded, Switzerland will again be presented with a fait accomplit. It will then be said, of course, that there is no alternative.

What is the stadium of negotiations on the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA)?

We are not provided any information. As a matter of fact, we have repeatedly asked those who are part of the negotiations for Switzerland what they are actually presenting there. But you do not receive an answer. We parliamentarians chosen by the people are not being informed, and that is bad. There is a secretiveness (mystery-mongering) in Switzerland by which the principle of direct democracy is blatantly violated.

Does the question of a referendum arise here, too?

The procedure is the same as in the case of the Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP.) It is being declared as a free trade agreement. It is argued that there are many of them and that it is nothing special. That the free trade agreements with China have not been subjected to a referendum is now catching up with us. I have voted in favour of a referendum at the time in order to enable the people to vote on it at the ballot box, but unfortunately without success. The people must be able to vote on the issue, a fundamental debate is needed and the people must know what is at stake and what the consequences are for the citizen and for our polity. I want politics for and with citizens rather than without or against them.

The entire procedure is unworthy of a sovereign state.

It means that liberty, sovereignty, and democracy are abandoned. These are the basic cornerstones of Switzerland’s success. Participation, co-operative organization, the bottom-up structure of our polity, the sense of active citizenship, and consequently a great transparency of political processes – these are the key strengths of our country. To enter into agreements in secret is at odds with our polity right from the start. Under no circumstances can we throw all this to the wind. Those basic values have already come under attack from the USA and from Brussels. In actual fact this is a death blow to our democracy.

Why are such agreements launched and negotiated at all in the first place?

We are in the midst of a global conflict, in which Switzerland is a neutral country. This means, after all, that Switzerland is open to all regions of the world, and that is how matters should stay. We can talk with a clear conscience to everyone – to the Russians, to the USA, to China. My impression is that they want to win us over to one alliance. The power struggle between the superpowers is intensifying, and in this situation Switzerland cannot align itself unduly to one of the major powers. And the trend is clearly moving towards the USA. In this manner you are offending other good trading partners. The objective seems to be to move Switzerland in the direction of the USA, to dissolve its neutral status so that it can become part of the Western alliance. The entire process has to be located in this global framework, as well. Besides, the USA want to prevent countries from entering into agreements with other states such as China or Russia. In other words, international positioning is also a key issue. The important consideration here for Switzerland is to maintain its neutral and liberal-minded (cosmopolitan) attitude and not to align itself with one side or the other.

National Councillor Reimann, thank you very much for this interview.     •

(Interview Thomas Kaiser)