What you need to know about Switzerland’s ‘palm oil’ referendum

The Swiss will cast their votes on March 7th on three different issues. One of them involves free trade agreement with Indonesia.

What you need to know about Switzerland's 'palm oil' referendum
A palm oil farmer loading palm oil seeds onto a truck in Indonesia. Photo by WAHYUDI / AFP

What interest does Switzerland have in an Asian country more than 11,000 km away?

Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil, a raw material that is much in demand in Switzerland, as it is elsewhere.

It is commonly used in food and other products.

However, “high customs duties and other barriers make it difficult to trade with Indonesia”, the Federal Council said.

Therefore, Switzerland has negotiated a trade agreement with Indonesia, providing that all Swiss goods can be exported duty-free to that country, “placing Swiss companies on a par with their foreign competitors in the growing Indonesian market”, the government noted.

“In return, Switzerland has abolished duties on Indonesian industrial products” — mostly, but not only, palm oil.

As Switzerland’s economy relies heavily on exports, the agreement would facilitate access to the growing Indonesian market, in particular for small and medium-sized enterprises, opening up new opportunities for Swiss companies.

Besides the government and the parliament, the centrist and right-of-centre parties support this trade pact, as does the group representing Swiss businesses, Economiesuisse.

But those who oppose the agreement have called for a referendum, which is why the Swiss will weigh in on this issue on Sunday.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What is Switzerland’s ‘anti-burqa’ initiative all about?

Who is against the free trade agreement and on what grounds?

The Social Democrats, the Green Party, agricultural union Uniterre, as well as environmental groups like Greenpeace and Pro Natura oppose this treaty and have launched the referendum.

They claim that to increase palm oil production, native forests in Indonesia are cleared and replaced by palms. There are also issues of child labour and the violation of human rights.

In cultivating palm oil, “destruction of biodiversity, displacement of indigenous and agricultural communities, the use of toxic pesticides, exploitation and child labour remain the rule”, Uniterre wrote on its website. 

In all, palm oil production accelerates “the overexploitation of nature” and would only benefit businesses and not the local population, opponents point out.

However, the supporters of the trade agreement counter these arguments.

In the agreement it signed with Switzerland, Indonesia pledged “to effectively enforce laws, policies and practices aimed at preserving primary forests, peatlands and their ecosystems, halting deforestation, peat drainage and burning to gain land, reduce air and water pollution, and respect the rights of local and indigenous communities and workers ”.

For its part, Swiss government vouched that “anyone who wishes to import palm oil must prove that the oil has been produced in compliance with the agreed environmental and social requirements”. 

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What you need to know about Switzerland’s digital ID vote


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Swiss decision to purchase US fighter jets could force second referendum

Switzerland's decision to purchase US-made fighter jets could be put to a referendum,

Swiss decision to purchase US fighter jets could force second referendum
Swiss fighter jets. Photo: JOE KLAMAR / AFP

Switzerland’s government on Wednesday backed the purchase of 36 F-35A fighter jets from Lockheed Martin to replace its fleet and five Patriot air defence units from fellow US manufacturer Raytheon.

Switzerland’s current air defence equipment will reach the end of its service life in 2030 and has been undergoing a long and hotly-contested search for replacements.

“The Federal Council is confident that these two systems are the most suitable for protecting the Swiss population from air threats in the future,” the government said in a statement.

‘No Trump fighter jets’: Swiss don’t want to buy American planes

The decision will now be put to the Swiss parliament — and also risks being challenged at the ballot box, with left-wingers and an anti-militarist group looking to garner enough signatures to trigger a public vote.

The F-35A was chosen ahead of the Airbus Eurofighter; the F/A-18 Super Hornet by Boeing; and French firm Dassault’s Rafale.

For the ground-based air defence (GBAD) system, Patriot was selected ahead of SAMP/T by France’s Eurosam.

“An evaluation has revealed that these two systems offer the highest overall benefit at the lowest overall cost,” the government statement said. Switzerland is famously neutral. However, its long-standing position is one of armed neutrality and the landlocked European country has mandatory conscription for men.

“A fleet of 36 aircraft would be large enough to cover Switzerland’s airspace protection needs over the longer term in a prolonged situation of heightened tensions,” the government said.

“The air force must be able to ensure that Swiss airspace cannot be used by foreign parties in a military conflict.” 

Long path to decision 

Switzerland began to seek replacements for its ageing fleet of fighter jets more than a decade ago, but the issue has become caught up in a political battle in the wealthy Alpine nation.

The Swiss government has long argued for the need to quickly replace its 30 or so F/A-18 Hornets, which will reach the end of their lifespan in 2030, and the F-5 Tigers, which have been in service for four decades and are not equipped for night flights.

In 2014, the country looked set to purchase 22 Gripen E fighter jets from Swedish group Saab, only to see the public vote against releasing the funds needed to go forward with the multi-billion-dollar deal.

Bern launched a new selection process four years later, and a referendum last year to release six billion Swiss francs ($6.5 billion) for the purchase of the fighters of the government’s choice squeezed through with 50.1 percent of voters in favour.

During the referendum campaign, the government warned that without a swift replacement for its fleet, “Switzerland will no longer be in a position to protect and even less defend its airspace by 2030”.

Currently, the fleet does not have the capacity to support ground troops for reconnaissance missions or to intervene against ground targets.

Meanwhile Switzerland’s current GBAD system is also old and lacks the capacity to meet the widening spectrum of modern threats.

The military currently relies on a range of Rapier and Stinger short-range missiles that have been in service since 1963.