Will Switzerland’s ‘palm oil’ referendum pass?

Switzerland votes Sunday on a free trade deal with Indonesia but the agreement, which opens up a vast potential market, could slip up over the issue of palm oil imports.

Posters ahead of Switzerland's March 7th referendums in 2021.
Image: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

Under the deal, tariffs would be gradually removed from almost all of Switzerland’s biggest exports to the world’s fourth most populous country, while the Swiss would abolish duties on Indonesian industrial products.

Anyone importing Indonesian palm oil must prove that it meets certain environmental and social standards.

But controversy around palm oil and its sustainability fuelled enough concern in Switzerland to trigger a public vote.

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

Two separate polls in February put support for the deal at 52 percent, with 41 to 42 percent against.

The agreement was signed in 2018 and approved by the Swiss parliament in 2019, but opponents were especially critical of Bern’s move to reduce import duties on palm oil.

The deal contains exceptions for agricultural products, notably to protect Switzerland’s sunflower and rapeseed oil production.

For palm oil, customs duties will not be removed but instead reduced by between 20 percent to 40 percent.

These reductions will only be granted on a volume limited to 12,500 tonnes per year — and importers will need to prove that the palm oil has been produced in a sustainable manner. 

Bears, tigers and orangutans

Campaign posters backing the economic partnership agreement show a Swiss bear hugging a tiger, while those against show an orangutan and baby clinging to a tree trunk, surrounded by flames.

The agreement aims to boost ties with Indonesia, which despite its population is only Switzerland’s 44th biggest economic partner, and only its 16th biggest export market in Asia.

In 2020, Swiss exports to Indonesia amounted to just 498 million Swiss francs ($540 million, 450 million euros).

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

“This is the first time that the people will be called upon to vote on a trade agreement,” Swiss President Guy Parmelin said during a press conference on the vote.

Switzerland relies on around 30 such agreements which do not normally pose a problem, he said.

However, Parmelin called the vote an opportunity not only to respond to “legitimate concerns” but also to “de-demonise free trade”.

He said such deals were of “paramount” importance for an export-led economy like Switzerland, which lacks both significant natural resources and a large domestic market — and draws almost half its national income from abroad.

Without an agreement with Indonesia, Swiss companies would be put at a disadvantage, the president insisted, noting that the European Union is also negotiating a deal with Jakarta.

Indonesia is a growing economy with an increasingly affluent middle class, offering considerable potential for Swiss firms.

The government recommends voting for the deal, highlighting the restrictions put in place to ensure the sustainability of imported palm oil. 

‘It doesn’t make sense’ 

However, the agreement’s opponents are far from convinced.

Palm oil is a key ingredient in a wide range of products from food to cosmetics but it has long been controversial.

Environmentalists say it drives deforestation, with huge swathes of rainforest logged in recent decades to make way for plantations.

“Palm oil is an emblematic product of free trade,” Willy Cretegny, an organic winegrower who brought about the drive for a vote, told AFP.

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

He convened a committee comprised of Greens, young Socialists, and agricultural organisations and unions.

In opposing the deal, he cited deforestation, human rights and environmental violations, and also the certification criteria for palm oil itself.

“The number one problem with free trade is that it is a tool to encourage consumption, even over-consumption,” he added.

Cretegny questioned the “aberrations” of a set-up focused on exports — to the detriment of subsistence agriculture for domestic consumers.

“We put fallow land aside in Switzerland, and we deforest elsewhere. It doesn’t make sense,” he said.

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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.