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Lost in translation: Swiss minister under fire for lack of English

Should a Swiss Federal Councillor be able to speak English?

Lost in translation: Swiss minister under fire for lack of English
The Swiss Federal Council with Federal Chancellor Walter Thurnherr. PETER KLAUNZER / POOL / AFP

Concerns have been raised over the English capabilities of Guy Parmelin, seen fourth from left in the photo above. The politician is a member of Switzerland's seven-member executive known as the Federal Council and he will head up the Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research (EAER) from next year.  

Parmelin's lack of English has been documented in numerous Swiss press articles. 

His responsibilities in his new Federal Council position will include conducting negotiations on free trade agreements with Vietnam, India, Malaysia and the USA. These negotiations are widely expected to be carried out in English.

When asked about his English abilities in 2015, Parmelin, from the French-speaking part of Switzerland, initially tried to answer in English but soon reverted to French. “I can English understand but [continuing in French] I prefer to speak French for clarity,” he said.

Curiously, the second line of his biography page on the Swiss Federal Council website says that he holds a “federal baccalaureate” specialising in Latin and English.

survey conducted by Swiss daily Tages Anzeiger after the 2015 incident revealed that, of 5,739 responders, more than 77 percent believed Parmelin should be able to speak English.

Parmelin has since said that translators are available to him should he feel the need for one, and that his listening comprehension of English was acceptable. 

“English is a must”

Tim Guldimann, a high ranking Swiss diplomat, told the 20 Minuten news site that speaking English is a “must” for international politicians. He also suggested that Parmelin’s lack of language skills would be a stumbling block for him. “Personal conversations create a relationship of trust,” he said.

“This is much more difficult to build up with an interpreter.”

Switzerland has four national languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh. Roughly 63 percent of the population is German speaking, and roughly 23 percent are French speaking like Parmelin – who is said to speak “passable” German at best. 

Another Swiss politician, Hans Wicki, who failed in his bid to be elected to the Federal Council this month, has also seen his language skills make the news for the wrong reasons.

In October, while speaking to the media about why he wanted to be on the Federal Council, the first question Wicki faced was about his French abilities.

Like Parmelin, Wicki tried initially to answer in French saying “Yes, of course, I speak French but I am not …” before reverting to German to add “a translator like Karin Keller-Sutter”.

Keller-Sutter, who was elected by parliament to join the Federal Council, is fluent in French and a trained translator and interpreter.

Wicki’s second attempt at speaking French shortly afterwards also ended in German and the story featured in numerous newspapers around Switzerland.   

However, Georg Lutz, a professor of political science at the University of Lausanne, told 20 Minuten that it is not obligatory for Swiss politicians to be multilingual.

“The Constitution does not state that a member of the Federal Council must speak the national languages,” he said.

“But it would be more difficult if you do not have a passive understanding, as everyone speaks their native language.”

Lutz also said that speaking to the public was much easier with multiple languages but added that politicians can usually find a way around these types of problems.

Is the criticism fair?

It may be surprising to some readers that a lack of languages can trigger such news articles. Not too many British or American politicians are known for their abilities with foreign languages.

British Prime Minister Theresa May did speak French following a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in January 2018 – though she read from a prepared statement rather than speaking freely.

More recently, the British government made headlines after being mocked by German speaking EU politicians and diplomats for translating Brexit white papers into “unreadable” German.

US President Donald Trump has also tried his hand at Spanish in the past but his efforts have been pilloried by some media outlets, as you can see below.

Former US president Barack Obama has also admitted to not being fluent in any language other than English but did attempt to speak Spanish on occasion while president. 

Perhaps the scrutiny of Parmelin’s English speaking-ability is an indication of Switzerland’s more enthusiastic approach to learning languages.

But then again, according to the 2018 English Proficiency Index, Switzerland is in the second tier of countries when it comes to speaking English as a foreign language.

READ MORE: Why Switzerland still lags behind on English skills 

A former wine maker, Parmelin was elected to the Federal Council in 2015, taking over as the head of the Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sport in 2016.

It is unclear if he is willing to learn English. So far the Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sport (DDPS) has defended him, saying that his mother-tongue French is an international language of diplomacy and that Parmelin already conducts talks in English. 

They admit, however, that in certain situations a translator would be required. 

ENERGY

Air-con, ties and lights: How Europe plans to save energy and get through winter without blackouts

In the face of possible energy shortages due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, countries around Europe are taking action to cut their energy use and ensure that the lights remain on this winter. Here's a look at some of the rules and recommendations that governments are introducing.

Air-con, ties and lights: How Europe plans to save energy and get through winter without blackouts

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and ensuing sanctions has seen energy prices soar, while the Russian leader is also threatening to cut off gas supplies to the west in retaliation for the sanctions.

All this means that countries around Europe face a difficult winter and the prospect of energy shortages – so many are already taking action to stockpile gas and cut energy usage.

Here’s a roundup of what actions are being taken. 

Germany

Heavily dependant on Russian gas, Germany is already feeling the effects of the energy squeeze, with many households and businesses turning down the thermostat or dimming the lights as gas storage facilities are being filled at a slower pace.

RulesEarly in July, Germany’s lower house of parliament or Bundestag passed a plan to turn off the hot water in its offices and keep the air temperature no higher than 20C in the winter. This limit is merely recommended for households.

However homeowners will not be allowed to heat private pools with gas “this winter”, according to government plans, while a regulation requiring minimum temperatures in rented homes is expected to be suspended “so that tenants who want to save energy and turn down the heating are allowed to do so”.

As well as national rules, many German cities have also adopted their own energy-savings plans.

The Bavarian city of Augsburg, for example, has turned off its fountains, dimmed the facades of public buildings at night and is debating switching off some under-used traffic lights – and a housing cooperative in Dresden made national headlines when it announced it would limit hot water to certain times of day.

With certain exceptions, public buildings in Berlin will not have heating from April to the end of September each year, with room temperatures limited to a maximum of 20C for the rest of the year. In areas such as warehouses, technical rooms, corridors, the maximum will range from 10 to 15C.

Private enterprise has been getting in on the act too – Vonovia, Germany’s largest property group, plans to limit the temperature in its 350,000 homes to a maximum of 17C at night.

The head of consumer chemicals group Henkel has said that work-from-home practices may be reintroduced, while chemicals giant BASF has raised the possibility of putting its employees on furlough.

Recommendations – Economy Minister Robert Habeck has made headlines for extolling the virtues of shorter, colder showers.

France

France has an ambitious plan to cut its energy usage by 10 percent within two years and a government plan for sobriété énergétique (energy sobriety) is expected by September.

In the meantime, some rules have already been put in place while there are also some official recommendations. The general principle is that changes will be obligatory for government buildings and businesses, but voluntary for private households. 

Rules – In 2013, a law obliging businesses to switch off outside lights by 1am came into force. That deadline may be brought forward and towns and villages may have to switch off streetlights earlier – some areas have already taken this decision.

Shops that have air conditioning may not leave their doors open, so that less energy is lost.

Limits have been suggested for heating and air conditioning – keep heating to a maximum of 19C and air con to a minimum of 26C at the height of summer. The Prime Minister says she ‘expects’ government buildings to show an example and adhere to these, but they are voluntary for households.

Meanwhile, the heads of large supermarket chains in France have made a voluntary agreement for all stores to employ energy-saving techniques, such as turning off electric signs at closing times, reducing light usage, and managing store temperatures, from October 15th this year. They will also cut lighting by half before opening time, and by 30 percent during “critical consumption periods”.

Additionally, they will “cut off air renewal at night” and “lower the temperature in outlets to 17C this autumn and winter, if requested by a regulatory authority”.

Recommendations – The government has urged individuals to adopt energy-saving practices – by switching off wifi routers when on holiday, turning off lights, unplugging electric appliances when not in use, and lowering the air-con.

France’s energy transition minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher has urged people to keep heating to a maximum of 19C and air con to a minimum of 26C at the height of summer.

Spain

Spain has introduced perhaps the most wide-ranging set of rules in its new energy-saving bill, which comes into force on August 10th.

Public buildings as well as shops, restaurants, cafés, supermarkets, transport hubs and cultural spaces must:

  • Set heating and cooling temperatures to limits of 19C and 27C respectively;
  • Install doors that automatically close by September 30th to prevent energy waste, as can happen with regular doors that are left open;
  • Lights in shop windows must be turned off by 10pm;
  • Posters must be put up to explain the energy saving measures in every building or establishment, and thermometers must be displayed to show the temperature and humidity of the room.

READ ALSO: Is it realistic for Spain to set the air con limit at 27C during summer?

Recommendations – the above rules do not apply to private homes, but it is recommended to follow the heating and cooling limits.

Meanwhile, working from home is recommended for large companies and public administration buildings to help “save on the displacement and thermal consumption of buildings”, Spain’s Minister for Ecological Transition Teresa Ribera said.

And have you thought about your outfit? Here’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez explaining why he’s ditching his tie to stay a little bit cooler.

Italy

Back in April the Italian government approved limits on the use of air conditioning in public offices and schools from May 1st, to save energy and wean itself off reliance on Russian gas imports.

At the time Ministers said that Italy would be able to end its reliance on Russian gas within 18 months, after previously giving a timeframe of at least two years.

Rules – In public buildings, energy use will be measured in individual rooms of each building – the temperature must not exceed 19C in winter and cannot be any lower than 27C in summer, with a margin of tolerance of two degrees – meaning the lowest allowed temperature is actually 25C.

Fines for non-compliance with the rules are said to range from €500 to €3,000. The measure does not currently apply to clinics, hospitals and nursing homes.

Italy has long had rules in place limiting the usage of heating in homes and public buildings during winter. Northern and mountainous areas are allowed to switch on the heat in October, while some parts of the south can’t turn up the dial until December.

Even then, there are limits on how long you’re allowed to keep the central heating on each day, ranging from six hours in the warmest parts of the country to 14 hours in chillier regions.

And there are rules on maximum temperatures – private homes, offices and schools should not be heated to more than 20C, with a 2C tolerance. Meanwhile factories and workshops should generally be kept at 18C.

Austria

The Austrian government has said it will work on measures to encourage energy saving among households and businesses while putting a cap on electricity prices.

The aim is to “support the Austrian population to ensure unaffordable energy supply for a certain basic need”, according to a government statement. 

The government didn’t give details on the price cap but said that conditions would be developed by the end of August.

Sweden

Sweden has announced no new measures in response to the energy crisis, but already has certain limits in place. 

Many Swedish apartment buildings and housing cooperatives have a strict maximum heating limit of 21C indoors and in some buildings radiators have a limiter on them so they cannot be turned too high.

In Denmark, too, the government has introduced no specific new measures.

Switzerland

In common with other countries, Switzerland is at risk of a gas shortage this winter and the government has warned that restrictions on consumption during the coldest months cannot be excluded.

Nearly half of its annual supply is of Russian origin. “We are not an island, so the war in Ukraine and the global energy crisis also affect Switzerland,” Energy Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said at the end of June. “In this context, there is no certainty about what awaits us.”

The possibility that Swiss households will have to turn down the thermostat this winter is very real. 

In the event of an actual shortage, “consumption restrictions may be ordered, for example restrictions on the heating of unoccupied buildings. The switching to biofuel could be imposed by ordinance”, Economy Minister Guy Parmelin has said.

If shortages persist, a quota system would be implemented – with households and essential services, such as hospitals, among the last to be affected.

But Parmelin insisted, “the role of the State is to guarantee a good supply of gas and electricity to the country. We want at all costs to avoid a disruption in supply, which would have a strong impact on businesses and  would then lead to an economic crisis”.

UK

Less reliant on Russian gas because of its own gas reserves, the UK is currently less worried about supply than price – soaring utility bills may force many households into poverty this winter, campaigners have warned.

Households in the UK will start receiving a discount worth a total £400 (€478) off their energy bills from October, the British government has said, with the support package rises to £1,200 (€1,430) for the poorest households.

A recent report by National Grid said there was little chance of the lights going out in the UK this winter – though experts have warned that a severe cold spell could prompt action, such as shutdowns of non-critical factory operations, to ensure homes can be heated.

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