Swiss National Council President Irène Kälin talks in an interview about how she plans to lead Parliament in the new year and which challenges await her in the National Council.

Irene Kälin

Irène Kälin, President of the Swiss National Council in 2022

Which challenges do you think Parliament will face in 2022? Which priorities do you plan to set during your term as President of the Swiss National Council?

The global climate crisis remains unresolved, especially given the extremely vague promises and progress made in Glasgow last November. And after the rejection of the CO2 Act, Switzerland’s own standing isn’t very good, either. It’s high time that we take action. The country’s relationship with the EU is also up in the air. Our location at the heart of Europe means that we need to do everything in our power to ensure that regulated relations are restored. Of course, we’re also still in the grip of the coronavirus crisis and the situation has become much more alarming again than we’d hoped. I had actually been hoping to have the honor of being the President tasked with returning things to normal, but when I take a look at the high case numbers in our neighboring countries and here, I’m not so sure anymore whether I can see a light at the end of the tunnel quite yet. I’m immensely worried about both that and the deep coronavirus-related chasm that has split our country. In my capacity as the 200th President of the Swiss National Council, I’ve set myself the goal of bringing the topic of “balance” to the fore. In fact, one of my big priorities is promoting a balance between the different realities of life and different perspectives. Not only with respect to the pandemic.

Government aid aimed at mitigating the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic on the Swiss economy has had an enormous impact on national debt. How do the members of Parliament in Bern plan to bring the level of national debt back down (through tax hikes, etc.)?

While it’s true that government aid granted to cope with the effects of the coronavirus crisis has had an impact on our national debt, before we talk about reducing that debt, I think it should be mentioned just how greatly these financial measures have helped the Swiss economy. From an economic perspective, we’ve weathered the crisis quite well (so far). Unemployment figures haven’t exploded and neither has the number of bankruptcies. Our economy is already doing well again. In an international comparison, you could even say quite well.

After two years of having the budget shaped by enormous pandemic-related expenses, it’s starting to look like the proposal for 2022 is returning to normal. Under current legislation, the shortfall on the amortization account that was caused by pandemic-related debt must be balanced out again within a six-year period. The amortization account posted a deficit of CHF 9.8 billion at the end of 2020. Parliament has already freed up more than CHF 20 billion in extraordinary funds for 2021 to help overcome the consequences of the coronavirus crisis. Since rapid debt reduction would result in massive budget cuts and hamper economic recovery, which would be the polar opposite of what we need in the current situation, the Federal Council will submit a dispatch to Parliament at the start of the year on the topic of reducing pandemic-related debt. There are two variants being discussed at present. The first foresees a medium-term reduction through future financial surpluses. The second includes an option that would only reduce the debt by half. From today’s perspective, both of these variants are feasible without any austerity programs or tax hikes.

Environmental protection is important to you. You support young climate activists, biodiversity and children’s futures. In your capacity as President of the Swiss National Council, how do you intend to incorporate these issues into your political agenda?

As President of the Swiss National Council, I preside over parliamentary meetings and work with my colleagues in the Office of the National Council to define the agenda items for the sessions. So I’m responsible for what happens in the Council and I represent the Swiss Parliament to the outside world, for example on official visits. However, in my capacity as President of the Swiss National Council, I’m not permitted to vote unless there’s a tie or if approval is needed from a majority of the members of each Council. That means my political power is limited. My role is that of a bridge-builder or facilitator – this year, the focus isn’t on partisan politics. But I am a member of the Greens, of course, and you’ll see and feel that influence. Unfortunately, though, it’s not within my power to impact the climate crisis. All I can do is remind everybody over and over again that we only have this one Earth and that we owe it to our children to take action.

In your opinion, which are Switzerland’s biggest political issues?

The pandemic, along with its social and economic repercussions, is something that we’re sure to be dealing with for some time to come. Right now, more intensely than we had hoped. Climate change is a major global problem, plus we’re in the midst of a relationship crisis with the EU. And then on top of those major problems, issues like equal opportunities and work-life balance still need a lot of work, too. Switzerland prides itself on being a progressive, family-friendly country. But we aren’t. On the contrary: When it comes to family policy, we’re still a developing nation. I consider it a challenge for those of us in power to put more structures in place that will help people strike the right balance. So parents don’t call it quits because of work-life conflicts, so they don’t leave the workforce – whether fully or in part – because third-party caregivers are too costly, so they aren’t forced into roles not of their choosing. Because this lack of balance isn’t just a problem experienced on a day-to-day basis by specific individuals, it’s also reflected quite clearly in our shortage of specialists.

As President of the National Council, which goals have you set for your year in office? Do you want to use your position to promote your party’s main priorities?

I want to make “balance” a key issue in two different contexts. One of which is in the social dimension I mentioned, namely striking a balance between the realms of work, family and politics. The other context I have in mind is balance when it comes to different opinions. Our political culture is one in which we incorporate as many opinions as possible. Nevertheless, I’ve still come to the conclusion that we aren’t always as successful at striking a balance between different political opinions and positions as we should be. In this case, balance would mean hammering out solutions and compromises that solve problems and are broadly accepted by the public.

You consider a better work-life balance extremely important. How do you yourself strike that balance?

I was at the National Council until the day before my son’s birth and went back a week later. It was a balancing act between voting and nursing and today I can say that it worked out. But it only works out if you have a supportive environment and if every gear in the delicately balanced system (daycare, father, parents and me) functions properly. As soon as somebody is sidelined, the system falls apart. That’s why I’m firmly convinced that we’re well advised to create more structures that help people strike this balance, like many other countries have already done.

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