Decisions concerning State and (foreign) economic policy in the two chambers of (Swiss) parliament

Spring session 2016

A synopsis

by Dr iur Marianne Wüthrich

On 18 March, the three-week spring session in Berne came to an end. The most important State and foreign-policy decisions of the spring session are briefly introduced and commented here. In direct democratic Switzerland, the work of our Parliament means also work for us citizens. As for the negotiations with the EU or other major powers, it is important to follow them with open ears and mind and to be in contact with many people.
    Already during the session, we are thinking and discussing whether we want to take the referendum against a law or a treaty. In the spring session, the final votes of both Councils were held on 18 March, from this date onwards, a period of 100 days starts in which the citizens can collect 50,000 signatures to demand a federal referendum on a proposal adopted by the Parliament. So, the Giardino group has already started the referendum against the further reduction of the Swiss army. We are looking forward to another opportunity to collect signatures and to get in discussions with the citizens.

Yes to the withdrawal of the EU membership application

Since 1992, the request for Switzerland’s EU membership remains lying in Brussels. Thanks to this unauthorized step of the then Federal Council the accession to the EEA – declared openly as a step towards full accession – was rejected on 6 December 1992 by the Swiss people. As a result, the Federal Council has been expressing for years to a formal withdrawal of this request: “La demande d’adhésion dont vous parlez n’existe plus sur la carte politique. [The membership of which you speak no longer exists on the political map.] Elle est devenue sans objet. Elle est ‘gegenstandslos’.” (Federal Councillor Didier Burkhalter on 1 March 2016 before the National Council)
Nevertheless, National Council Lukas Reimann (SVP SG) insisted rightfully on the retreat. His motion was adopted by the National Council with 126 votes against 46 with 18 abstentions and is now in the Council of States (Official Bulletin of the 1.3.2016, motion 14.3219).
One thought clouds the joy of this unique result: A part of Yes voters probably will clear the way for the expansion of Bilateral Treaties, including an “institutional framework agreement with the EU” hostile to our sovereignty.

State initiatives call for sovereignty of the cantons in the formulation of the cantonal election law

Every canton can apply to the Federal councillors by a State initiative and demand a decree of the Parliament.1 The cantonal governments and parliaments and the electorate make frequent use of this facility.
Currently two State initiatives of the canton of Zug (14.316) and the canton of Uri (14.307) demand a modification of the Federal Constitution for the purpose of “Restoring the sovereignty of the cantons on election issues”. Here, it can be shown only briefly what it is about, a closer look will follow on occasion.
The facts: In December 2002, the federal court blamed the city of Zurich, because their proportional electoral procedure for the elections put smaller parties at a disadvantage in the distribution of seats. This judgment was the issue of a flood of constitutional and electoral law changes in the cantons on the one hand, on the other hand several complaints to the Federal Court. Because, especially in smaller rural and mountain cantons there are electoral laws which are in force for over 100 years and in which the diversity of a federalist political system is wonderfully expressed. Some of these cantonal rules said the Federal Court to be legal but others violate Article 34 of the Federal Constitution considering the protection of free forming of political opinions (!) and of the genuine expression of voters’ will (!).
To this, it should be noted: the increasing inclination of the highest Swiss Court to stretch the clear wording of legal provisions, can obviously not be explained alone with external pressure (European Court of Justice, ECJ, European Court of Human Rights). Or maybe yes? Should federalism be gradually reduced this way to a minimum so that the great powers can deal with Switzerland with a tightly-run central power?
Back to the State initiatives by Uri and Zug: The Political Institutions Committee of the Council of States has given on 23 June 2015 result to the two State initiatives and has accepted a constitutional amendment so that the cantons can again independently control their elections. However, the Political Institutions Committee of the National Council demanded on 15 January 2016 for not to follow the State initiatives.
The initiative is now back in the Political Institutions Committee of the Council of States and then goes to the Council of States. We can hope that this committee exercises its role as representative of the cantons.

Attacks of representatives on people’s rights

Some readers may remember the initiatives from the Parliament demanding the Federal Council to establish a report on “measures to improve compatibility of popular initiatives with fundamental rights” – that means measures to restrict the people’s rights.2
Already in the consultation the Federal Council’s suggestions have failed at that time. Therefore, the Federal Council now requests the depreciation of two motions of 2011, approved by the National Council on 3 March 2016 (Federal Council 14.024). Most disconcerting, however, is the fact that the Political Institutions Committees of both Councils despite the clear opposition of cantons, political parties and civil society groups, launched further attempts to restrict the validity of popular initiatives.3
The displeasure of some parliamentarians against direct democracy culminates in an emergency interpellation from the ranks of the National Council that requires answers by the Federal Council to the following questions, including: “1. Is it the opinion of the Federal Council that the many business-hostile people’s initiatives and their flood of votes (1:12-, minimum wage-, mass immigration-, basic income-, solid money-, rip-off-, inheritance tax-, enforcement initiative, etc.) endanger the domestic investment activity as well as the legal certainty and stability of the business location Switzerland? 2. Does the Federal Council have the opinion that the implementation of the mass immigration initiative is damaging the legal certainty and attractiveness of the business location Switzerland? […]” (Urgent interpellation 16.3025)
The worst is yet to come! Does the electorate have to write its own initiative texts according to the dictates of corporations and investors? All other concerns of citizens are to prohibit – or what? Who serves the direct democracy? Must we really remind our “representatives” that they are elected by the people – by the same people who launches national initiatives and votes about them?

Free movement of people and other sticking points between Berne and Brussels

Main issue in the foreign policy of the Federal Government is currently the implementation of the mass immigration initiative dated 9.2.2014. At the press conference, 4 March 2016 the Federal Councils Sommaruga and Schneider-Ammann brought little new: so far no agreement with the EU; the Federal Council wants to determine threshold levels of immigration with a unilateral safeguard clause; an “Immigration Commission” should support; the domestic labour force should be promoted; also a change of the Aliens Act is planned, according to which foreign job seekers can’t collect welfare in Switzerland anymore; the negotiations with the EU will continue (press release of the Federal Council 4.3.2016).
It is to add that the EU is still refusing to conduct negotiations with Switzerland on the modification of the Agreement on Free Movement of People (FMP), but remarkably is now ready to discuss issues of the “application of law on the Free Movement of People” – probably referring to the negotiations with the United Kingdom? The extension of the bilateral way as desired by the Federal Council, is stuck for a long time due to the disagreement over the jurisdictions: So there’s still some hope … (see Foreign Policy Report of 2015).
To demonstrate, that the Federal Council is “serious” about the implementation of mass immigration article BV is 121a, it presented by the way a submission to the Parliament to extend the FMP on Croatia (!) on 4 March.
There are various initiatives from Parliament:

  • Postulate 13.4022 by Karin Keller-Sutter, Councillor of State, free Democratic party Canton of St Gall: the Federal Council is asked to issue a benchmark of the Free Trade Agreement with the EU and the Bilateral Agreement. This postulate was accepted on 17 March in the Council of States, also on recommendation of the Federal Council. As expected, the Federal Council concludes, a “comprehensive free trade agreement” would be a “clear step backwards” for the Swiss economy compared to the Bilateral Agreement. Interesting is the reasoning of the Federal Council: “The examined scenario of a ‘comprehensive free trade agreement’ assumes market access concessions, which can be implemented without legal harmonization – without the assumption of EU law and without contractual and monitored equivalence rules –.”
         Or in other words: according to the Swiss Federal Council, the acceptance of EU legislation by Switzerland is almost the essence of the Bilateral Agreements and brings “legal certainty” to our economy. Such has already become a given fact that “legal certainty” could be reached  only by taking over the legal system of the “big brother”…
  • Postulate 15.4009 by Fabio Regazzi, National Councillor, Christian Peoples Party CVP Ticino: What are the consequences for the Swiss economy in case of a potential termination of the Freedom of Movement Agreement?
       Regazzi assumes that also the other six agreements grouped as “Bilateral I” and possibly also the Schengen/Dublin and the Education Agreement would be terminated. He suggests a study similar to an expertise issued in April 2015 on the economic consequences of an exit of Britain from the EU: The study tries to prevent the British from leaving the EU, by predicting a decline of the GDP by 13 percent until the year 2030!
        Federal President Johann Schneider-Ammann stated in front of the National Council on 29.2.2016, that he has initiated already two studies, according to which the costs for the Swiss economy in case of an exit would be considerable.
       However, Luzi Stamm, National Councillor Swiss Peoples Party, Canton Argovia, stated in the debate, that these studies were limited to the negative consequences of the termination of the bilateral although there would be many positive aspects for Switzerland: for example, it could claim higher lorry toll on the transalpine roads compared to the Land Transport Agreement, or after termination of the Schengen/Dublin agreement it would immediately issue direct and efficient agreements with the police authorities of each EU country separately. In addition, Luzi Stamm doubted that the EU would really apply the «guillotine clause», i.e. cancelling all of the seven bilateral agreements I and eventually some of the bilateral II.

One can only agree on this positive perspective. In fact, it is not very likely that the EU would cancel the FPM agreement, from which in particular the neighbouring countries of Switzerland benefit greatly, even more as we do. With regards to the agreement on land transport, it is fully in the EU’s interest. And not only Switzerland can do without a contract, such as Schengen/Dublin, which works (more or less) under fair weather, but turns out to be quite unfit in a crisis when the wind becomes rough. The education agreement has given us blessings such as Pisa and Bologna, and participation in EU research projects turned out to be more expensive compared to cooperation with foreign research institutions on an autonomous basis. These are just a few examples.

Special topic: Ticino safeguard model

Three days after the Federal Council the Government and the Parliament of the Canton of Ticino introduced its own model of a safeguard clause and it rightly expects understanding and accommodating of the Confederates for its precarious situation now: “The Canton of Ticino suffers for a long time the downsides of the FMP. Daily over 60,000 Italians commute as cross-border workers into the Ticino – more than every fourth employee comes from the southern neighbouring country.”
To remedy this, the Ticino Government has hired the former Secretary to the Federal Government and now ETH Professor Michael Ambühl, who has presented a “bottom-up protection clause” on 7 March in a press conference. This is not based on immigration, but on the regional labour market, on measurable indicators like wages and unemployment rates (source: SRF from 7.3.2016).
An interesting idea, that could be applied according to Ambühl in heavily affected regions or if necessary in the whole Switzerland.

How to get to more engineers in Switzerland?

In short referring to an initiative that banks on more training of lacking professionals living inland, in order to make better use of the priority of nationals in the recruitment and so to oppose in a positive way against the mass immigration. (“Residents” are not only Swiss citizens, but also foreigners living in Switzerland.)

  • Interpellation 15.4262 by Pirmin Bishop, State Councillor CVP, on 10 March in the Council of States: “Missing engineers, import or educate them?” Pir-min Bishop: “If you believe in data of the Swiss Engineers and Architects Association, the concerned companies need per year 3,000 new qualified employees – 3,000. Currently, and for years now, a quarter of these, so 750 people are coming from abroad, plain and simply spoken because there is not a sufficient number of correspondingly qualified and trained professionals in this country.” To do so, the Federal Council has launched a Specialist Initiative (FKI): Among others, measures are planned to promote the professional baccalaureate; projects are already started at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich (ETH) to raise at the elementary schools “awareness and motivation of children and adolescents for the MINT areas”. (MINT = mathematics, Information Technology, Natural sciences and Technology)

Discussions like these motivate me, and surely some of the readers of this article as well, to inform the National Council and the Council of States as well as the politicians in the cantons and communities about the catastrophic consequences of the ongoing educational reforms (Curriculum 21, teacher training, etc.), which will by no means bring forth more engineers and other MINT-professionals, but more and more professional beginners which were not taught in reading, writing and calculus by teachers, not speaking of focussed learning habits and the necessary perseverance. Contributing something useful to the education of natural scientists, engineers and technicians means to get active in his own canton to set up a suitable curriculum and respectively educated teachers.

TTIP and TiSA: Should Switzerland step on a train with a questionable destination?

On 29 February 2016, the National Council debated about two postulates regarding Switzerland’s stand on TTIP and TiSA.

  • Postulate 14.4186 from Gerhard Pfister, member of National Council CVP ZG, which demands a report on a strategy regarding TTIP and TiSA from the Federal Council: “The strategy should focus on chances and opportunities which could come out of both of these agreements for the Swiss economy.”
         Jacqueline Badran, SP ZH, turns against this: “Mr Pfister, you say that you don’t want any taboos, but anticipate the outcome of the report by saying: I am focussing on chances and opportunities. [...]
          And all this upon a bill which could mean massive damage to Switzerland, namely dumping, namely Freeze of Legislation. These are serious democratic problems! I really want to hear something about that.”

We as citizens kindly affiliate with this demand. Federal president Schneider-Ammann created a masterpiece in his following plea to the National Council about consenting with the Pfister postulate by not losing a single word about the content of these two planned agreements, which are controversial throughout the whole of Europe. Federal Council Schneider-Ammann to TTIP: “I note that eleven rounds of negotiations have taken place. We have our information from first-hand: from the part of the European Union by the responsible Commissioner Cecilia Malmström and her direct surroundings and from the Americans by Michael Froman, the Trade Representative, who leads the negotiations under mandate, and his surroundings. So we know that progress has been made in these eleven rounds of negotiations. We also know that a termination of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is still sought in the ‘term of office’ of President Obama. We also hear from those chief negotiators that it happens like everywhere when negotiations are carried out: that the most sensitive points come on the table only at the last moment and only in the very last moment an attempt is made to reach an agreement.” He continues in this tenor and leads to the statement that Switzerland must unconditionally participate in time, but of course cannot expect to take any influence.
Hearing these fatalistic tones from the Federal Council we should remember the negotiator Walter Stucki, the “great Stucki”, who has taken it up in the 20th century with the great powers, especially the US and achieved amazing results of negotiations for Switzerland, because he knew for whom he took a stand: for the interests of Switzerland.
The National Council approved the postulate Pfister with 142 to 49 votes. The votes against came from all 11 Greens, from the majority of the Social Democrats (30) and from 8 SVP Councils.
From the green faction then came the second motion on which the National Council voted also on 29 February.

  • Postulate 14.3314 of Adele Thorens Goumaz, calling the Federal Council, to examine by which measures Switzerland can “preserve Switzerland’s environmental and social standards» in the case of the conclusion of TTIP.
           Here is an excerpt of the worth reading commentary of the Greens, which is recommended to be read as a whole:
           “The EU and the US are currently negotiating a transatlantic trade and investment partnership. This agreement is sharply criticised in Europe because of the lack of transparency of the negotiations and because the European standards could be affected. According to Federal Councillor Burkhalter the agreement could also lead to a deterioration of standards for food production and agricultural production in Switzerland.”
           The National Council joined the recommendation of the Federal Council and rejected – without discussion! – the postulate with 129 to 63 votes. (No votes with one accord of the factions of the Greens, the Social Democrats and the Green Liberals and two CVP-votes.)

Concerning the handling of the National Council of these two postulates raises the urgent question: Does the bourgeois majority in all seriousness believe that Switzerland should blindly jump on the questionable TTIP train, against which especially the highly alarmed farmers oppose across Europe? For example in Austria: “Nearly two-thirds of farmers in Austria are critical against the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) sought for by the European Union and the US.”4 Also in “Schweizer Bauer” from 16 January 2016 fears in European agriculture are recited under the title “Farmers warn: TTIP is our decline” and a study is referenced that concludes, among other things: “Small and medium farms cry [...] havoc: the planned transatlantic free trade agreement TTIP means for Europe more genetic engineering, more hormones in meat – but especially the end of an agriculture as we know it so far”.5
May we sell our country – and of course the other European countries too – may we sell the people’s health and our environment without discussion to an agreement of the US and the EU? Without that we will be informed in concrete terms? If across Europe farmers are protesting our politicians actually need to take this very seriously, rather than trying to jump quickly quickly, on a train, only that we are also there.     •

1    Bundesgesetz über die Bundesversammlung from 13 December 2002, Art. 115
2    cf. “Keine Aushebelung der Volksrechte”, Zeit-Fragen Nr. 38 from 19.9.2011
3    cf. Bericht der SPK des Ständerates vom 20.8.2015 and Medienmitteilung der SPK des Nationalrates from 5.2.2016 under the title: “Gültigkeit von Volksinitiativen: Auch Nationalratskommission sieht Handlungsbedarf”
4     www.bauernzeitung.ch/news-archiv/2015/oestereich-landwirte-kritisch-gegenueber-ttip/
5     www.schweizerbauer.ch/politik--wirtschaft/international/landwirte-warnen-ttip-ist-unser-niedergang-26542.html

A note for easy retrieval of the individual submissions: Each parliamentary business has a number, for example, 14.3219. The first two digits indicate the year in which the submission was launched, in this case 2014. By entering the number via internet, one can get directly to the documentation of the transaction concerned, along with the current state of its treatment in the councils. By the way, the whole session can now also be witnessed by video.

Foreign Policy Report 2015 of the Federal Council from 13 January 2016

This report is presented before both councils annually. The National Council took note of the report on 1 March, after a long debate, the Council of States did so on 17 March. Anyone who wants to learn about the foreign policy activities of the Federal Council and its departments can read the 196-page report (Federal Gazette Bbl 2016, from page 593 onwards) or inform himself by reading or by listening to the debate in the National Council of 1 March (business of the Federal Council 16.009). One of the key issues was also last year’s commitment to peace and security in many war and crisis regions of the world, whether by humanitarian aid or diplomatic activity, including the intake of refugees. The second key issue concerns the relations with the neighbouring countries and the ongoing negotiations with the EU – 160 meetings in 2015! (See “Free Movement of Persons and other disputed points between Berne and Brussels”)
(Translation Current Concerns)

Briefly about things to know concerning the legislative procedure

The National Council (200 seats, according to population of the cantons) and the Council of States (46 seats, two for each canton/1 per half-canton) are absolutely equal. Both discuss and decide separately on all businesses in the National Council chamber respectively in the chamber of the Council of States.
First Council and Second Council: The presidents of the two councils are authorized to determine which of both councils shall deal with a business as first Council or as second Council.
The sessions take place four times a year which in total mean twelve weeks. Both, the members of the National Council and the members of the Council of States are militia parliamentarians. During the rest of the year each of them pursues a profession. This is an invaluable benefit as it makes them more independent: Those who are not elected any more by the people will not be without jobs.
Commissions: Commissions consist of a certain number of members of the Councils. Their task is to discuss the businesses intended for the session in advance. Both, National Council and Council of States, have a Foreign Policy Committee (APK), a Committee for Legal Affairs (RK), etc., in which the political parties are represented according to their numbers of seats.
“Differenzbereinigungsverfahren” (procedure for reconciling the versions of the two chambers): If the two Councils do not agree on a question, the question goes three times back and forth. If there are still differences, a conciliation committee is convened, in which each Council sends the same number of members. The compromise found by the conciliation committee is submitted separately for vote to the National Council and the Council of States. If again they should disagree the bill fails. An example: The Council of States kept on rejecting the Prevention Act after the conciliation committee and by this the act was off the table.
Parliamentary means (virtually the tools of the parliamentary trade), Parliamentary Initiative: Each member may propose constitutional articles, laws or federal decrees.
Motion: A Council member, a political group or a parliamentary commission give mandatory order to  the Federal Council, for example, to present a draft act. In order to let this happen both Councils must agree.
Postulate: An order to the Federal Council to check whether a draft act has to be presented or a measure to be taken. Only the postulant’s Council must agree.
Interpellation: The Federal Council is requested written information on important events or problems, followed by a discussion in the Council of the questioner.