The Swiss commitment to common sense

A glossary of words as well as an exercise related to this article are also published online.

Swiss Ambassador Christian FotschSwiss Ambassador Christian Fotsch (Source: Jana Liptáková)

A glossary of words as well as an exercise related to this article are also published online.

CHRISTIAN Fotsch comes from a country where, in two cantons, people still gather in a square twice a year to vote on crucial issues by raising their hands in a process known as ‘Landsgemeinde’, one of the oldest forms of democracy. The Swiss Ambassador to Slovakia says that traditions like this, combined with a common-sense approach to voting and the ability to decide on important issues at the lowest possible level, are necessary preconditions for a healthy direct democracy, and explain why “history shows that Swiss people have always decided in a reasonable way”.

The Slovak Spectator spoke to Fotsch about the electronisation of Slovak court rooms, Swiss immigration quotas for eight EU member states, the shift in Switzerland’s nuclear policies, as well as the importance of multilingualism.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Switzerland will contribute €3 million to the project of electronisation of the judicial system, which should help to solve problems with delays in the courts. Slovakia is to make a contribution of €450,000. Why has Switzerland decided to support this project?
Christian Fotsch (CF):
We believe that electronic agenda management will substantially speed up the decision-making process in all Slovak courts. It will contribute to shielding the courtroom from corruption through an increased level of public control. ‘Paper’ as such will practically disappear from the court processes, eliminating the possibility of documents getting lost or suddenly appearing. Different court agendas will be interconnected virtually, which increases the accessibility of court files from any point in the country. Naturally the security and also the confidentiality of the stored data will have to be ensured. To bring more transparency to court cases, all hearings will be recorded through this electronic system, so statements can be checked at any time, at any moment afterwards. I think you would also agree that these are important changes for the Slovak judicial system.

The aim of the project is not to copy solutions applied in Switzerland, but to respond to the specific needs in Slovakia. Nevertheless, the Slovak justice minister is in contact with the Swiss Federal Court in Lausanne with the aim of exchanging experiences and the most effective practices. Swiss experts have already been involved in a pilot project with similar, but more basic goals implemented some years ago in Banská Bystrica. It is already an area involving bilateral cooperation. The project is not only about giving money but an exchange of ideas between experts.

TSS: Last year Switzerland re-introduced immigration quotas for citizens from eight EU countries including Slovakia. Could you explain why this move was necessary for Switzerland to take and why is Slovakia among the affected countries?
Of course I will present the Swiss view, which differs from opinions held by Slovakia as well as the European Union. When we introduced the free movement of persons with the European Union, first for 15 EU countries then extending it to 27 member states of the EU, as part of the deal with the EU we also agreed that when the number of immigrants exceeds the average for the past three years, we would then use a safeguard clause which involves immigration quotas. Last May, our government made the decision to re-introduce a quota of 2,000 permits annually for the eight EU countries that entered the union in 2004. We had massive immigration numbers in 2011, when more than 65,000 immigrants came to Switzerland, and this was the main trigger behind our government’s decision. This April, our government can decide to extend the quotas until May 2014, which is the maximum, and after this date the policy of completely free movement for the whole of the EU will resume, except for Romania and Bulgaria, which joined the EU later.

In 2014 we will also have referenda on the free movement of persons with the EU in association with Croatia, which will join the EU this summer. Due to our system of direct democracy we will also vote on an initiative called Ecopop, which seeks to have annual population growth through immigration capped at 0.2 percent. If the majority of Swiss people say yes to this initiative, it would end our bilateral agreement with the EU.

TSS: In Slovakia learning English has become mandatory for elementary school children. In response to the legislation, ambassadors of Germany and Austria as well as yourself, have called for the preservation of multilingualism in Slovakia. What are your concerns regarding the legislation?
Switzerland is a multilingual country with German, French and Italian being our official languages and Rumantsch a national language spoken by about 35,000 people. Multilingualism and respect for minorities helps the national cohesion and opens up the mentality of the people. Being multilingual also increases people’s competitiveness on the labour market. When it comes to Slovakia, we respect the decision by the Slovak parliament, but we also regret that English is compulsory as the first foreign language since we believe that students or parents should have the possibility of choice. We are not against English since we recognise that it is a very important international language, but we would prefer if people have the freedom to choose in Slovakia, which has a multilingual history. Just look at Bratislava, which used to be Hungarian, German and Slovak. There are also economic reasons since knowing several languages is a competitive advantage.

We have already heard from companies looking for staff in Slovakia that language skills are extremely important, not only English, but also German. For example the Swiss Re insurance company, which has an office here in Bratislava with 600 employees, looks for staff who speak several languages, like Spanish, German, English, Portuguese and Italian, because as a back office they cover the whole world.

TSS: Switzerland has frequently used referendums as a major tool of direct democracy, while Slovakia has not been very successful in exercising this tool. What are, in your opinion, the preconditions necessary for a country to use referendums successfully?
I was actually very surprised when I came here and I learned that even for the most important decision to split Czechoslovakia into two countries, no referendum was held. Switzerland has a long history of direct democracy and the historical element is extremely important. We still have ‘landsgemeinde’ in some cantons, where people gather twice a year in a square, and a question is asked and they vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ by raising their hands. Another key element is that important questions are being decided at the lowest possible level, with municipalities deciding over a wide range of issues. Each canton decides about its own healthcare system, for example. We decide at the national level only about issues such as foreign policy or defence. Then a very important precondition is responsibility or common sense: I think in Switzerland history shows that the Swiss people have always decided in a reasonable way. As an example we can look at the canton of Lucerne, where there was a referendum regarding a tax hike and the people said ‘yes’ since they understood that the canton needed more money. As for the disadvantages of direct democracy, it makes the system very slow, I have to say.

TSS: Last June, you signed with Igor Federič, the head of the Slovak Cabinet Office, six agreements worth €21.6 million within the Swiss-Slovak cooperation programme. Could you please explain how and in which areas of society the funds will be used?
In June 2012 we signed six agreements on municipal waste-water treatment projects. The above-mentioned amount represents 85 percent of the total costs while the remaining 15 percent is covered by the state budget and the benefiting municipalities. The three agglomerations in eastern Slovakia and three agglomerations in the western part of the country will expand or build their waste-water collection networks and treatment plants. The Swiss funds will serve to build a 55-kilometre sewer network, so roughly 10,000 inhabitants will be connected to a new sewer system. Several waste-water treatment plants will be expanded or newly constructed. We especially hope to implement new technologies and innovative approaches in new constructions.

Out of 46 project proposals submitted within the open call for proposals, together with the Slovak Government Office, we have chosen the six best projects presented by agglomerations, which are not eligible for EU structural funds. We hope that the public tender processes will run smoothly and that construction can start in 2013. It has been agreed with the Slovak partners that the tenders will be evaluated based on the most economically advantageous offer instead of the lowest price criterion.

TSS: Similar to Slovakia, about 40 percent of electricity in Switzerland is generated by nuclear power plants. However, in May 2011, the Swiss government decided to abandon plans to build new nuclear reactors. What brought about this shift in Switzerland’s energy policy?
The main trigger behind the government’s decision was the Fukushima accident in Japan, but in Switzerland there has been opposition to nuclear power since the 1980s. Perhaps it is a phenomenon shared by German-speaking countries to oppose nuclear power. But there is an ongoing debate over how to preserve the country’s energy security. The biggest share should be covered through energy-saving measures while the goal is to achieve a 2,000-watt society, whereby one person consumes energy [at an average level of] only 2,000 watts [over] a year, which is about half of the energy consumption today. This should be achieved through saving on heating costs or shifting from private transport to public transport. Alternative energy sources, which are covering only 9 percent of the total energy consumption, will be also promoted.

TSS: Last year, the Swiss company Schindler, one of the biggest global producers of lifts and escalators, decided to expand its production in Slovakia and invest an additional €10 million here. Is Slovakia still an attractive investment destination for Swiss companies? Which are the areas of potential cooperation?
Switzerland is the second most important investor in the EU but only the 14th in Slovakia. Yet, there is potential for more Swiss investments here. Perhaps one of the reasons is that we still think more about Czechoslovakia than about the Czech Republic and Slovak Republic. Yet Slovakia is one of the few countries which have a positive trade balance with Switzerland, thanks mainly to the car manufacturers. You mentioned the Schindler investment; what I can say is that the investor appreciates the costs of labour, the trained labour force as well as the euro, which limits transfer costs. When I hear critical voices, these mostly pertain to the judiciary, especially when it comes to small and medium- sized enterprises.

TSS: How has your country managed to remain an attractive tourism destination? What challenges does the current tourism market pose for Switzerland? How could, in your opinion, Slovakia improve its own promotion?
Swiss tourism faces considerable challenges, partly because of the strong Swiss franc, which makes tourism quite expensive. Now the Swiss tourism organisation is trying to diversify the potential, for example, by opening new markets, mainly in China, India, Indonesia, Southeast Asia, South America and Brazil, where there is an increasingly affluent middle class that can afford holidays in Switzerland. What has been helping Swiss tourism is quality-consciousness, which is making the customers feel that they are accessing the highest quality of everything when visiting Switzerland. There is an attempt to diversify not only the customers, but also the offers. Our tourism managers also always try to create events to attract people outside of the high season.
Slovakia has incredible tourism potential, if you look at the High Tatras, the spas and the landscape. Perhaps here tourism officials could also try to find extra events, be it a congress, or any other activity to attract people outside of the high season and create some added value, because there is competition in tourism like everywhere else. Also, high-quality services with a customer-friendly attitude are very important as well.

TSS: Košice is the European Capital of Culture in 2013. What, in your opinion, does such a title mean for a country like Slovakia?
This event puts Slovakia in the window of Europe. I myself participated in the opening ceremony and I was positively surprised. It was a good combination of a traditional and a modern approach. I think getting the title in 2013, 20 years after the split of Czechoslovakia, was very good timing, showing that even though Slovakia is a young country, it has actually grown up.

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