High profile interview

Simonetta Sommaruga speaks to us about her year as President of the Confederation

A year has passed since the 11th of December 2019. The day when Simonetta Sommaruga was elected as President of the Confederation. However, an entire era seems to have passed since then. It was another world, one without coronavirus.
CdT Archive
Paolo Galli
18.12.2020 10:56

Mrs Sommaruga, how far away does that day actually seem to you?

«It really seems to be a lifetime ago, another world. It gives me a strange effect when I review. For example, the photos of the party, hugs, and handshakes. From time to time, especially at night, I happen to think back to all the meetings I have experienced this year, the visits to sick, the loneliness suffered by many, to how this pandemic has brought fears and worries among the population. Fears and concerns for health, but not only, also from the point of view of work, the economy, the social sector. It gives a strange effect to reflect on the fact that only a year ago we had nothing to do with this».

On January 1, 2020, you sent a message to the public from the bakery near the house. A message focused on the concept of health, but also in support of the proximity economy. An economy now in crisis. Has enough been done so far, with adequate timing?

«It’s true, that day I touched on both points, starting with the importance of health, for oneself and for one’s loved ones. A year can be really good if nothing serious happens to our loved ones, if we are healthy and happy. Today we have understood once and for all how important the value of health is, especially when we live so closely the risk of losing it. As for the economy, I reiterate the concept of allocation: in order for us to be well, others must also be well. I want to underline how the Federal Council’s reaction was quick, especially when compared to that of other countries, still undecided on how to support them. Of course, still today there are those who experience enormous difficulties in this sense, and this is also why the Federal Council decided last Friday to increase aid by an additional one and a half billion francs for hardship cases. Among those most in need, I am also thinking of the world of culture, for example».

Speaking of timing, the Federal Council is being requested from many sides to impose a new «extraordinary situation». However, other cantons stress that they reacted in time and want to avoid measures imposed by Bern. How then can a real balance be found?

«The situation has become more complex, compared to last spring, when - with the previous exception granted to Ticino, the so-called“ crisis window ”- at a certain point, the Federal Council took all the decisions. After the worst moment, however, it was right to allow the Cantons to each have their own autonomy, as indeed they requested, according to the various epidemiological situations. In this second wave, things are going another way. And then it is necessary to find the balance between national and cantonal measures from time to time. For this reason, relations between the Confederation and the cantons are constant, even with the Ticino Council of State. We had exchanges with President Norman Gobbi himself to resolve the problem linked to railway connections between Italy and Switzerland last week».

The path we are looking for is the result of constant contacts between the Confederation and the Cantons

For now, among the solutions to the pandemic, there has not yet been talk of a new total lockdown, although it is recommended by the national task force itself, among others. What are your thoughts?

«At this moment it is essential to be able to find a way that takes every aspect into consideration. Therefore, we must take into consideration health, the situation of the hospitals, the economic effects of the crisis, the social consequences, the problems of each generation. Because if we have to deal with the safety of the most vulnerable categories, we must also think about children, young people, their right to a school in the presence, the possibility of discovering life, of living it in their age. Here, balance is everything at this stage. And to find the right balance, the Federal Council meets every week, often several times a week, and maintains contact with the cantons» .

Pressure is coming to the Federal Council from various quarters, from business circles, the cantons, the population itself and neighboring states. How much do they affect you?

«The pressures are real, it’s true. I have been a member of the Federal Council for ten years; I know what it means to work under pressure. With the pandemic there is a special pressure, due in particular to the response times we are called to. In fact, the Federal Council must take its decisions in a very short time, often even from today for tomorrow. It is therefore necessary that the Executive can meet and discuss, seeking the best solutions. Often even within our group we have those who want to tighten the measures and those who want to loosen them or leave them unchanged, but what matters is to arrive at a final decision supported by everyone. The president is called upon to offer clear and transparent explanations to the population, so that they understand why certain decisions have been made».

«The way out of the crisis»

Federalism is, however, severely tested. How will we get out of the pandemic?

«Federalism is a complex system. Twenty-six cantons mean twenty-six cantonal governments - which each make their own decisions - but also twenty-six different ways of doing things. But this complexity is also the strength of federalism. In the course of a similar situation, of this pandemic, therefore, we have noticed the importance of united communication, which does not generate doubts among the population. Here, we can then speak of a phase of challenges for federalism, a phase that reminds us that national cohesion is not something that falls from the sky. However, the advantages of federalism have been seen several times during the pandemic, depending on the different situations».

We wanted to believe at some point that we would come out better from this pandemic, more united. The second wave, however, brought out more anger, greater distances, between individuals and also between citizens and politics.

«During the first wave, we witnessed an incredible solidarity between people, between neighbors, between different generations. After a few months, now, we are all a little more tired, it is undeniable, and we would like not to have to deal with the virus and its restrictions again. And everything became more difficult. But solidarity is still present. Just think of the efforts and sacrifices made by young people - young people whom I thank -, who are sometimes forced to attend school at a distance, not to go out in the evening; but also to the sacrifices of the elderly, in defense of their health. Perhaps it is no longer the time of public applause, of such evident solidarity. But there are still many people who help others, and each other, contributing to this solidarity».

Even among us there are different ideas: what matters is to arrive at a final decision supported by all

What has been the most difficult moment in this year of your presidency? What has shocked you the most?

«I remember the press conference on March 16, the days that preceded the decisions communicated at the time, the lockdown then. We knew that the consequences would be enormous for everyone, especially for those who would have to close their business overnight. We have experienced isolation, we have had people die without the possibility of having a last farewell from their loved ones, but also on the other hand children who have not been able to say goodbye to their parents one last time. We lived the distance, the solitude. For some weeks I myself have not been able to see my mother, a guest in a nursing home, and I cannot hug her as I would like to do, to be close to her. We have all lived through very hard times».

On May 27, between smiles that are hard to forget, he said: «The virus is in check.» Was that, for you as for us, one of the mildest moments of your year as president?

«Those first moments had represented a first trace of normality, a first good news in short, after so many press conferences in which we had instead had to present the various restrictive measures, after many complicated moments. But I was and am here also for this reason, to be there when the population needs guidance. Among the beautiful moments I prefer to remember the various meetings. One above all: the 1st of August celebrated with the «heroes of the newspaper», two people from every canton who had become protagonists during the first wave with gestures of solidarity. That day I felt this Switzerland so strong and united, I experienced those examples that I still hold in my heart today and that still give me strength today. It’s true, we are 8 and a half million people, 26 cantons, but Switzerland is one, one country».

You spoke of his affections. Here, have you lived with the fears, doubts, insecurities of this historical moment, a moment that she found herself having to manage on the front line?

«This was a new situation for all members of the Federal Council. A situation that we have lived like all other people, with the same risks, with the same possibility of losing affections, of being affected in the same way by the pandemic. In this role, with these responsibilities, however, we are called to think of our country. And therefore every contact, every encounter that I have had up to now, has given me the strength and the ability to find a way to Switzerland. With our federalist system, we are not a country of extremes, of «completely closed» or «completely open», of «all in the house» or «all out». And then it is right to work on finding the best solutions for the population as a whole, for most of it».

The packages of measures that are likely to be presented tomorrow also represent basically a compromise. Is that so?

«Rather than compromise, I would speak of balance, of balance between health and the social and economic consequences associated with the pandemic and possible measures to counter it. We must continue to work on this balance, to talk to the cantons and eventually to take decisions in the federal sphere».

Federalism has experienced a year of challenges, but national cohesion, on the other hand, does not fall out of the sky

You were recently included in the Forbes list as one of the 100 most influential women of 2020. Among the reasons, your ability to manage the pandemic. What does this recognition represent in your eyes?

«The first thought, when I read this news, I turned to the role played by women in the course of this pandemic. Because women have been affected even more than men, all over the world. Even in Switzerland, when children could not physically go to school, it was generally women who stayed with them, followed them in their homework and took care of the housework. All while continuing to carry out their profession. I am not saying that men were absent, but women - today we know (and unemployment data also confirm this, ed) - were nevertheless more affected. Here, my presence on this list pleased me precisely because it shows that there were also women to manage the crisis linked to the pandemic and because it reminds us how we should include women in the search for solutions, where solutions are actually found. Next year we will celebrate 50 years of the right to vote for women in our country. Before, even one could not speak of a true democracy. We must therefore still remember the importance of the presence of women in the political and economic life of our country».

Me among the most influential? A recognition that reminds us of the fundamental role of women in the pandemic

A last question. What do you expect from 2021? What will be the possible turning point?

«What I hope is that next year will bring us back our serenity. Unfortunately, I don’t have a magic wand, I can’t say now what will determine the turning point. However, I think there are signs of hope, the hope of finding the way out of this crisis. The other crisis, the climate crisis, has not disappeared. However, we have the opportunity to do something to protect the climate and, at the same time, to create jobs. It is a good prospect. In all likelihood, the population will be able to adopt a CO₂ law next year, which protects the environment and will bring innovative and lasting jobs. It will therefore be an intense year».