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UKRAINE

‘Very difficult’: Why Switzerland fears a Russian gas embargo

Much has been said about Switzerland’s dependence on Russian gas, with some claiming the country depends on this supply, while others saying it doesn’t. What is the real situation?

'Very difficult': Why Switzerland fears a Russian gas embargo
Heat might have to be reduced this winter in Switzerland. Photo: Pixabay

Natural gas meets about 15 percent of Switzerland’s energy requirements. It is used mostly for cooking and heating.

Though it buys most of this energy source through various European distribution channels, almost half of Switzerland’s supply — an estimated 47 percent — is of Russian origin. 

While Switzerland is not boycotting Russian gas, Moscow has been threatening to cut off supplies to Europe, having already turned off the tap to Poland and Bulgaria. 

If this were to happen, it would be “very difficult” for Switzerland, according to Swiss President Guy Parmelin.

The reason is that “Switzerland is totally dependent on oil and gas imports. We have wanted to minimise this dependency for a long time, for example with alternative energies, but this takes time”, Parmelin, who also acts as Switzerland’s Minister of the Economy, said in an interview.

READ MORE: How would an embargo on Russian energy impact Switzerland

Nevertheless, in the event that Moscow stops deliveries, the Federal Office for Economic Supply (OFAE) can minimise the damage, as Switzerland has mandatory reserves.

In order to allow for this, the population would need to curb its use of gas. 

This would mean that the entire population would have to set their central heaters 1 degree lower than usual, which will result in the 5 to 7 percent reduction in total consumption.

“If gas were in short supply, consumers would first be asked to reduce their gas consumption voluntarily. The federal government could also require companies with dual-fuel installations to switch from gas to heating oil”, according to the Federal Office for National Economic Supply (FONES).

“If there were still too little gas available, gas quotas could be imposed on large consumers without dual-fuel installations. If necessary, companies could be required to stop operating. Only in a third stage would private households also be affected and have to reduce their gas consumption. Heating systems, including hot water in many cases, would no longer be available around the clock”, FONES said.

If there is one point the war in Ukraine has driven home, it is that over the long term, “Switzerland needs to see how it can source its energy and where it is possible to reduce dependencies”, Parmelin noted.

In the meantime, two Swiss towns have already started to boycott Russian gas by not heating their municipal swimming pools.

READ MORE: Swiss pools go cold in boycott of Russian gas

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UKRAINE

‘Limited capacity’: How the Swiss right wants to shut out western Ukrainian refugees

With about 51,000 refugees from Ukraine currently in Switzerland, right-wing politicians argue in favour of introducing geographic vetting in regards to who can qualify for Status S, saying Switzerland has "limited capacity" for refugees.

'Limited capacity': How the Swiss right wants to shut out western Ukrainian refugees

After Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, the Federal Council activated, for the first time ever, the ‘S status’ authorising Ukrainians and Ukraine residents fleeing the war to live temporarily in Switzerland.

The special status is initially valid for a year, but can be extended. Anyone who is still in Switzerland after five years receives a B permit.

Included is also the right to work, as well as free health care and language courses. The refugees also have the right to free public transportation, but this perk will end on May 31st, with no word yet whether it will be renewed.

READ MORE: Switzerland’s special ‘S permit’ visa program: What Ukrainians need to know

Now, however, “the great solidarity with refugees from Ukraine is cracking”, according to SonntagsZeitung, which reports that rightwing politicians in Switzerland are “beginning to question our country’s culture of hospitality”.

The right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which has consistently opposed sanctions on Russia, is calling on the government to limit the S status  only to Ukrainians who come from the eastern part of the country, which is currently most impacted by Russia’s invasion.  

This movement is spearheaded by MP Martina Bircher, who argues that Switzerland is reaching its limits in terms of the number of refugees it can accommodate and support, and it should therefore grant S status only to those fleeing the most conflict-ridden regions of Ukraine, like the eastern part.

Other right-of-centre groups are in favour of this “regionalisation” as well. Andrea Caroni, president of the centre-right Liberal Party, supports the idea of granting the special status based on the geographical evolution of the Ukrainian conflict, saying Switzerland “ultimately has limited capacity” to absorb refugees from Ukraine. 

He said, however, that such a measure “must be coordinated at the European level.”

Not everyone, however, agrees with Bircher’s proposal.

According to Gerhard Pfister, president of the Centre Party, adopting geographical limitations “would create two classes of Ukrainians. This is not right”.

It is unclear how the SVP would seek to draw barriers to distinguish between the east and west of the country. 

As for the Conference of Cantonal Directors of Social Affairs, vice-president Marianne Lienhard said the organisaton will discuss the proposal at its next meeting at the end of May.

Cantons are directly affected by the influx of Ukrainians, as they will eventually bear the cost of supporting the refugees — the cost which is currently borne mostly at a federal level.

The “NZZ am Sonntag” calculated that in 2022, the costs of housing, health insurance, and general support will amount to between 1.25 and 2.25 billion francs. In 2023, these expenses could climb to 7.5 billion.

“Fake” refugees

In an article she wrote for the SVP website, Bircher also argued that some refugees pretending to be Ukrainian actually aren’t.

As an MP from Aargau, she claims that out of 12 people who received the S status in a small town in her canton, only seven were Ukrainian nationals. The other five came from Africa.

Among them are  “Kenyan and Lebanese men who claim to have lived in Ukraine or who actually lived there before the war, but who do not have a Ukrainian passport”.

The S permit scheme does not only provide protection for Ukrainian citizens, but also citizens of other countries who live in Ukraine. 

While reserved predominantly for Ukrainians, the S status has also been occasionally granted to citizens of other countries. 

According to the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM), about 1,000 “other” refugees received this status as well, including 238 Russians, and  people from Germany, France, Italy, the United States, Canada and Australia.

In such cases, children have a different passport from their parents, but it is the parents’ nationality and place of residence that defines whether the status is granted.

So it could happen that the parents have Ukrainian passports, while their children are citizens of other nations.

READ MORE: Swiss MPs call for Russian money to be used to reconstruct Ukraine
 

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