President Ignazio Cassis: a man who looks like Switzerland


Ignazio Cassis attends a press conference in Bern on December 8, 2021 which marked his election to the Swiss presidency. Keystone / Peter Klaunzer

Who is Ignazio Cassis, the new president of Switzerland? Known for having put an end to the discussions with Brussels on the institutional framework agreement of the European Union, he hopes to reach a consensus in his new function. SWI takes a closer look at who will represent Switzerland in 2022.

This content was published on January 3, 2022 – 09:00

His father Luigi Cassis was a farmer; and his grandfather an Italian immigrant who settled in a village near the border in Ticino. “If you grow up with three sisters and a bathroom, you learn to negotiate,” Ignazio Cassis said of his humble origins. He was an unruly child. At the age of 12, he lost the little finger of his right hand on the tip of a fence and fell.

Today, at the age of 60, Ignazio Cassis has become President of Switzerland. He is a typical product of the Swiss militia system, which now elevates him to this honorary post. In 2017, after a rapid rise in party politics, he entered the Swiss national government. His roots in the Italian speaking part of Switzerland have helped him; the minority canton had not been represented in government for a long time. His open and straightforward demeanor worked in his favor. In many ways, Cassis is a man who resembles Switzerland.

The most difficult wallet

Once in government, Cassis takes on the most difficult portfolio. Without diplomatic experience, he was in charge of unblocking Switzerland’s blocked relations with the European Union.External link and negotiate a framework agreement to frame long-term relations with Brussels.

It failed. In 2021, the Swiss government broke off negotiations. The decision was made by the seven-member cabinet, but the disappointment it caused mainly focused on Cassis. Swiss foreign policy experts have been critical, and in a Swiss Broadcasting Corporation opinion poll last fall, Cassis was ranked last among all members of government.

“My goal is not to be popular but to do a good job,” Cassis said in an interview with Swiss public television SRF. “It is more important to stay true to my principles and to implement my policies. As a representative of the Radical Liberal Party (FDP), he is a political liberal. Observers place him on the right wing of his party.

A doctor in the government

After the unspectacular conclusion of the negotiations with Brussels, the Swiss presidency appears like a light at the end of the tunnel for Cassis. Freed from the EU portfolio, can he establish himself as a unifying figure and take the stage in the pandemic as a doctor and expert?

This is a possible optimistic scenario put forward by some Swiss newspapers. Cassis obtained her doctorate from the University of Zurich at the age of 26. He then became a young cantonal doctor in the canton of Ticino before completing his doctorate as a specialist in public health. He recently told SRF: “With my experience, I can certainly explain government decisions to people. “

Ignazio Cassis came to politics late. He took office at the age of 43 in the assembly of his local municipality of 4,600 inhabitants. At 46, he became a deputy. “He was not a politician, but we considered him a good candidate,” remembers Fulvio Pelli, a veteran of the FDP who has supported Cassis since the start of his career. “He’s a smart man and he learns fast.”

Ignazio Cassis after being elected president on December 8, 2021. Keystone / Peter Klaunzer

The Swiss president is neither the head of state nor the head of government. The seven-person cabinet, also known as the Federal Council, is seen as a collective head of state and government. The president could be “first among peers”- the first among his peers – but he has no more power than the rest of the cabinet. Each of the seven cabinet members takes turns in the solemn rotating one-year post. The unwritten rule is that the presidency passes to the member of the government who has not held it for the longest time.

First steps as a diplomat

In a sense, Cassis only chairs government meetings and performs special representational functions. He gives speeches on radio and television on the occasion of the New Year and the federal holiday of August 1. In addition, it welcomes foreign diplomats in Switzerland at a New Year’s reception. It is also common for the Federal President to make official visits abroad.

None of this is new for Ignazio Cassis. He was Swiss Minister of Foreign Affairs for four years and, as such, he is now at home on the diplomatic scene. It hasn’t always been that way. His first steps on the international scene are hesitant.

Cassis took over the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs in November 2017. As a health politician, he had all the necessary knowledge for the Ministry of the Interior, but the only post open was that of Minister of Foreign Affairs. In Switzerland, this ministry is not making big waves in domestic politics. Development aid and diplomacy are part of a longer term perspective. “Foreign policy is not very popular in Switzerland,” says Pelli. “Nobody wants the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He took it. “

Cassis has made a number of missteps, fueling a growing chorus of criticism. He made non-diplomatic comments on the role of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in the Middle East conflict and tweeted public relations messages for commodity company Glencore from a mine in Zambia. An economic liberal, Cassis also attempted to convert Swiss foreign policy into a form of foreign economic policy, to the chagrin of the left.

“It has linked it more closely to economic needs and to migration policy,” explains Paul Widmer, professor of diplomacy. Its political opponents fear a “Switzerland first” policy. Fabian Molina, a specialist in social democratic foreign policy, told SRF de Cassis: “As a member of the government, he put business before human rights in foreign policy. I have some doubts that he can represent the entire population as Swiss president.

“Foreign policy is domestic policy”

Foreign policy – alongside the pandemic – remains one of Switzerland’s major projects in 2022. Relations with the EU have never been so unresolved. From the start of his mandate, he was at the head of negotiations with Brussels.

In 2018, he hired a new chief negotiator, but still led the direct dialogue himself. He also chose to speak publicly on the issue, assuming the role of moderator. He listened to the needs and mediated between the different interests of Switzerland and the EU. “Foreign policy is domestic policy,” he explained.

But there was no real movement on the outstanding issues between the two sides. In Switzerland, neither the left nor the right dared to take the plunge. Brussels and Bern looked at each other with suspicion. Cassis took the opportunity to set new development aid priorities. The importance of Latin America has been downgraded and measures to reduce migration have been taken more into account in foreign aid. He set priorities in foreign policy: China and the Middle East. He also extended Switzerland’s diplomatic network.

But Cassis is being measured today by the question of the fate of Switzerland in the EU, on which there has never been much to gain. Thus, in his year of presidency, he will be happy to turn to the more joyful enterprise to make himself known on the domestic scene. He hopes to “strengthen national unity,” he said. As the representative of a linguistic minority – which also speaks the other national languages ​​perfectly – he seems destined for this. “My goal is to allow differences of opinion to be seen as an asset in this difficult situation. And not as a source of conflict, ”he says.

An honorary position as an opportunity

Negotiations on international issues also remain on the agenda. Switzerland has almost obtained a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council for the period 2023-2024; a decision will be made in June. And the Alpine country could organize a future conference on Ukraine. Cassis is always looking for dialogue with China on human rights and, in general, multilateralism remains at the top of the Swiss agenda: international Geneva, digital diplomacy, and the search for mandates for international mediations. .

All of this also creates a positive image at home. And for Cassis, this offers the potential to score some important points to improve its image in parliament and among the population.


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