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ECONOMY

What are Switzerland’s four main challenges right now?

While not so long ago Covid-19 and its repercussions on the economy were primary concerns for the Swiss government and public, these challenges have now shifted to other, more current issues.

What are Switzerland's four main challenges right now?
Most of Switzerland's concerns right now involve higher costs. Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash

Looking back at this point in time in 2021, the pandemic and its impacts ranked among the top concerns for Swiss residents.

But in a survey carried out in May, the focus shifted to the Ukraine conflict.  Three months into the war, the prospect of energy shortages did not make it to the top-10 things the Swiss were worrying about.

Now, however, the energy crisis is at the very top of the agenda and hardly a day goes by without warnings about impending power shortages and blackouts.

These are the four main challenges that Switzerland faces right now.

Electricity shortage

As Switzerland doesn’t have its own gas storage facilities and depends on neighbour countries for the supply (which also face energy-related challenges of their own), electricity could become scarce, plunging the country into darkness and cutting off heating as well during the coldest months.

In cases of extreme shortages, electricity operators will have to cut the power off for four hours every eight hours, including for households. Only certain infrastructures considered essential would be spared, such as hospitals, emergency and security services, water supply systems, and the emission of radio and television waves.

READ MORE: How energy shortages could hit daily life in Switzerland

In response to these challenges, the government has launched a campaign to cut energy consumption in Switzerland by 15 percent and “ensure that Switzerland can quickly boost its energy supply in preparation for winter”.

Its recommendations to achieve this goal include simple steps such as lowering the heating by 1C, turning off lights in unoccupied rooms, and switching off all electrical appliances, among other measures.

READ MORE: What the Swiss government is asking you to do to save energy

A number of Swiss cities have already responded to the government’s call and announced they would implement rules — for instance, lowering the temperature in all public administration buildings and switching off lights, including Christmas displays, at night.

Inflation / rising prices

Just like the energy crisis, higher prices for a number of consumer goods are caused by the ongoing war in Ukraine.

While a wide range of products are becoming more expensive — including food, clothing, furniture, transportation, and other everyday goods — the increase that worries the Swiss most is, not surprisingly, the cost of electricity which includes not only light but also heating.

After the approximately 630 Swiss electricity operators published their tariffs for 2023 on August 31st, it became clear that  households will not only have to spend more on energy in the coming year, but that the spikes will be substantial.

Though prices across Switzerland will vary depending on a variety of factors, “a typical household will pay 26.95 centimes per kilowatt hour, which corresponds to an increase of 27 percent”, authorities said. “However, the differences can be much greater at the local level”.

In Vaud, Basel, and Zug, for instance an average hike will be between 39 and over 40 percent, with some customers even paying 61 percent more in Vaud.

READ MORE: Swiss government confirms ‘sharp increase’ in electricity prices

However, while these huge increases — and higher-than-usual inflation in general — are naturally a source of concern to consumers, and will be debated by MPs this fall, the Federal Council doesn’t have any plans to offer financial help to the hardest-hit households.

As Finance Minister Ueli Maurer said in an interview, even if energy prices were to remain at a high level in the coming years, the Federal Council does not plan to intervene.

“The state cannot suddenly subsidise a market and no longer be able to get out of it afterwards”, he said.

Healthcare costs

Another area impacted by higher prices, though in this case energy crisis doesn’t play a role, are the increasing costs of Switzerland’s health system.

Over the past 20 years, costs have risen at twice the rate of economic growth, and they continue to climb: premiums for the compulsory insurance, as well as overall costs of healthcare, are set to increase by 4 to 5 percent in 2023

To curb this upward trend, the Federal Council is planning to implement a range of reforms to reduce costs and ensure that not so many are passed on to consumers. 

Among the proposed cost-cutting measures — to be debated in the parliament this autumn — are coordinated health networks, seen as a way to save money and eliminate unnecessary medical procedures; cheaper medications; and electronic invoicing for treatments.

In its fall session, socialist and Green MPs will push for the government to subsidise health insurance premiums to the tune of 30 percent, but this motion will face opposition from the right-wingers.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: How Switzerland wants to cut soaring healthcare costs

Security / closer ties with NATO

With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the long-cherished concept of neutrality is weakening here, with many in Switzerland now urging a closer cooperation with the NATO alliance.

In her new report, Defense Minister Viola Amherd speaks of the importance of Swiss army’s participation in NATO training exercises, stressing that such a move “would not be incompatible with neutrality”.

A number of MPs also support this stance.

For the Liberal party, for instance, “the illusion of an autonomous national defense must be buried”.

“NATO makes any land or air attack against Switzerland virtually impossible”, according to party president Thierry Burkart.

The public seems to be on board.

A recent survey by The Swiss military academy and the Centre for Security Studies — both attached to ETH Zurich university — showed that an unprecedented 52 percent of respondents now favour moving Switzerland closer to the Western alliance.

And 35 percent now think joining a European defensive grouping would increase security more than maintaining neutrality — up 12 percent since January 2021.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why isn’t Switzerland in NATO?

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For members

SWITZERLAND AND FRANCE

‘Annoying… unbearable’: How the Swiss see their French neighbours — and vice versa

Switzerland and France are neighbours and the relations between the two countries have been (mostly) amicable. But how much do the people really like each other?

‘Annoying... unbearable': How the Swiss see their French neighbours — and vice versa

While you can sometimes hear people in Switzerland — mostly those living in the French-speaking cantons — grumble about their neighbours from across the border, it seems that the French are not totally enthused about the Swiss either.

This became obvious when the French TV station M6 dedicated its “Enquête exclusive” programme on September 16th to Switzerland.

Titled “Our amazing Swiss neighbours”, the programme noted that the Swiss “live a few kilometres from us, often speak the same language and yet are so different”.

‘Swiss particularities’

The word ‘amazing’, as used in the French programme, is not necessarily intended as a compliment — at least not totally. In this particular context, it means “bewildering” or “perplexing”.

The show did not focus on the typical stereotypes that many foreigners usually bring up when describing Switzerland: cheese, chocolate, and yodelling.

Instead, it pointed out other aspects of “Swissness”: the people’s love of firearms. It featured one ‘typical’ Swiss family, the Gobets, where everyone — including the kids — shoots and their cupboards are full of assault rifles.

Yet, as the programme accurately noted, despite the abundance of firearms, gun violence is very rare in this country.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Understanding Switzerland’s obsession with guns

If you did not watch this show, this is how the Swiss media described it:

“It is impossible not to laugh, on this side of the border, watching the broadcast …bunkers, militia soldiers lurking in the mountains and ready to repel the enemy, customs officers who are masters in the art of flushing out meat bought in France, municipal employees in ambush to flush out the person guilty of placing his waste in the wrong bin”.

All this may be somewhat exaggerated, but there is much truth in it.

‘They get on our nerves’

The Swiss did not take what they consider to be unflattering and limited portrayal of their country sitting down; instead, the media conducted a survey of their own, focusing on the perceptions people in Switzerland have of their neighbour.

Several themes come out of the survey:

  • The majority of respondents (68 percent) think France is no longer ‘a great country’. This observation, pollsters note, evokes “secret satisfaction” among the Swiss.
  • 57 percent  think that France has more negative than positive aspects.
  • 60 percent of survey participants say they have no inferiority complex vis-à-vis their much bigger neighbour, while a fifth go even further, stating they feel superior to the French.
  • 36 percent of respondents say the French ‘get on their nerves’, with some finding them ‘annoying’ or even ‘unbearable’. 
  • Nearly half — 48 percent — say the French have ‘big mouth’.
  • A minority (11 percent) say the French are ‘ridiculous’ and pretend to be more important that they are.

Though they could be considered as unkind by some, these reactions are far milder than comments gathered several years ago by a Swiss paper, Le Matin Dimanche.

Swiss employers interviewed by the newspaper deemed their French workers as “lazy” and “arrogant” employees, who “complain all the time”, and have have “a penchant for ringing in sick on Mondays and Fridays”.

However, this is only a small part of the full picture.

The vast majority of Swiss companies that employ French cross-border workers appreciate their input.

This was especially the case during the Covid pandemic, when cross-border employees from France kept Geneva and Vaud’s healthcare system from collapsing.

“Without cross-border workers, our hospitals would not be functioning”, Bertrand Vuilleumier, head of the hospital association in Vaud said at the time.

Have there ever been any real problems between Switzerland and France?

The Swiss weren’t thrilled to see Napoleon’s army cross the Alps into Switzerland in 1798.

And they are not amicably disposed toward them either when France’s national football team plays against Switzerland.

READ MORE: ‘We don’t like France, Germany or Italy’: How linguistic diversity unites Swiss football fans

But apart from that, things have been mostly cordial — except for a few minor spats.

Several years ago, there was a story about Switzerland’s military flying their helicopters over to France to “steal” water from a French lake in order to quench the thirst of some 20,000 Swiss cows suffering from dehydration during an especially hot summer.

There was apparently not enough water in Swiss lakes to meet the demand.

The incident spurred a bit of an outrage in France, where a newspaper claimed that “to save its cows, Switzerland steals water from France”.

However, in the end, the Swiss apologised, and all ended well.

A more recent incident happened in July, when Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset  flew a small, single-engine plane into France, approaching a prohibited zone.

Despite being ordered by ground control to vacate the no-fly area, Berset continued on his course, requiring an intervention by France’s Air Force — a military jet reportedly positioned itself near Berset’s, forcing him to land.

Once on the ground, Berset explained that he misunderstood the order to land, though the minister, originally from canton Fribourg, is of French mother tongue.

Once on the tarmac, an identity check was carried out and Berset was able to leave.

So that ended peacefully as well.

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