As President of the Swiss confederation, as Foreign Minister, as Chairman-in-Office of the OSCE, Didier Burkhalter is required to give many speeches. He probably has at least one person helping him prepare the texts. Be that as it may, the introduction to his national day August 1 address, although little commented upon, bears particular attention. Much like his “Cher Collègue” greeting to President Putin during a May visit to Moscow (see my blog of May 9), Mr. Burkhalter said a great deal in very few words.
The President of Switzerland traditionally gives a speech to the country on August 1. All public television stations broadcast the event in the three official languages. Unlike the long and often tedious State of the Union presentation by the American President to the Congress required in some form by the Constitution that often lasts for over an hour, the August 1 speech is short, optimistic and friendly. Indeed, after the speech the headlines quoted “Switzerland is a success. Switzerland is unique and of use to the world. Of that we can be proud,” as the major message the President wished to convey this year from the shores of Lake Neuchatel.
While analyzing the heart of the text, commentators missed the most important part which came in the opening. Instead of the usual “Chères Concitoyennes, Chers Concitoyens,” Mr. Burkhalter began by saying: “Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear inhabitants of our country”. He was addressing all the people living in Switzerland, not just those who are citizens.
Why was this so important? In a national referendum of February 9, 2014, the Swiss people voted against continuing Switzerland’s policy of adhering to the free circulation of people according to the Schengen agreement. Whereas those who had entered the European Union’s (EU) space had had free access to Switzerland, the vote stipulated that the Swiss Government had three years to change the policy, to become more restrictive. Besides calling into question numerous agreements between Switzerland and the EU, the vote was a clear victory for the right-wing parties against Switzerland’s liberal immigration policy. Following the vote, the Swiss Government is wrestling with how to respect the referendum’s requirements while not reneging on a long tradition of access and asylum to foreigners.
It is in the context of that tension that the Federal Councilor’s greeting is so welcome. As President, he has a mainly ceremonial role as the representative of the seven federal councilors. He is one among many with little additional authority. As with many aspects of Swiss politics, the Council works by consensus. (It should be noted that the Council had officially been against the referendum.)
The greeting can then be seen as a very clear statement that Mr. Burkhalter, as President, Foreign Minister and Chairman-in-Office is speaking to and welcoming in Switzerland those who reside here, not just the citizens. If we understand that according to official statistics Switzerland has a permanent resident population of approximately eight million that includes about two million foreigners, or 25% of the population, it becomes clear that he realizes the importance of foreigners to Switzerland, and that he clearly disapproves of the xenophobia that was evident in the February 9 vote.
Monsieur le Président, Merci beaucoup. Bravo for a wonderful speech, especially the introduction.