From Park Avenue to rue de Fribourg… Interview with Raymond Loretan

It’s difficult to categorize Raymond Loretan: a brilliant man, a former diplomat, for a long time he represented his country, Switzerland, living in New York with his family. Eventually, he decided to leave diplomacy and become a businessman and a politician, representing the Christian Democratic Union, a party that –– one might say –– occupies the Swiss political centre. He is a friendly man. By just talking to him, you know that he is sincere with a huge heart. However, when he gets upset –– something that does not happen very often –– make sure that you are not around.

Soon it will be election time, and Mr Loretan will start his campaign. We had a chance to meet with him on a very hot summer’s day and to discover the topics close to his heart. It goes without saying that Switzerland, international relations, as well as Geneva’s international community and the well-being of its different populations, are of particular interest for him.

Q: Why did you leave diplomacy for the business world?

In fact, I did not leave diplomacy for the business world; I left it to go into politics. The particular business world into which I entered is the health field, which is extremely regulated in Switzerland. This field also requires political action. That is why the Genolier Group was interested in getting me on board. I also set up a consultancy firm in the field of communication/strategy, whose main clients are actors who want to create networks within the political sphere to obtain warrants. So my move was politically motivated rather than economic.

My underlying motive was that I wanted to be involved in action. During my time in the diplomatic services, I undertook a political interlude where I became the Director-General of the Swiss Christian Democratic Party for five years. It is clear that in my genes I have some kind of political virus that comes from my family background. At one point I felt a breath of fresh air that told me to get out of diplomacy where you are executing the will of the government in order to go into political action, where you can make choices and bring with you political concerns and priorities.

It was a difficult decision to make –– to leave the diplomatic comfort zone and enter into a world that at the beginning I knew little about. It is true that I left Park Avenue, which was my home in New York, to find myself living on rue de Fribourg in Geneva. There is not really much comparison between the two!

Q: Could you explain what the Christian Democratic Party represents.

The Christian Democratic Party is one of the founding parties of Switzerland, which together with the Liberal-Radical Party created the basis for Switzerland as we know it today. It is also the party that, in the late 1950s, created the “magic formula”, permitting all major political parties to participate in the federal government. That is what we call the policy of consistency and this is the reason why all the major parties, even if they have very different ideologies, are reflected in the Swiss Federal Government. Our party has contributed to this. Today, we are the third or fourth biggest political party in Switzerland.

We defend a certain number of values, which are individual and collective responsibility; this means that it is not the state that governs but yourself. You should take control of your destiny, but also you must show solidarity with the people who need it most by what is called the principle of subsidiarity. It is all about help yourself first, then the family, the community, and finally the state.

Our strong point is definitely our family policy, which remains the basis for our society. A society that wants to build firm foundations must have families that are solid. Another key issue of our policies is to strengthen small and medium enterprises, and then respect for Swiss federalism which is also a recipe for our success. Beyond that, we are considered as an open and tolerant political party.

Switzerland’s European policy is a little tricky, simply because it is extremely polarized. Perhaps you recall that the European Union was created initially by the Christian Democratic Union of Europe and we feel solidarity with them. I always say that Switzerland is our country, but Europe is our future. This is the reason why we are concerned about the ways that we forge links with Europe. We are also open to others; that is to say, concerning the immigration policy and asylum, one must always take into consideration that, above all, these refugees are human beings. Human dignity is something that is extremely important to us. Following the influx of asylum seekers over recent years, on 9 February 2014 the Swiss voted against the free movement of people. The challenges of this decision forces us to find the ways and means to resolve them, bearing in mind that these refugees are above all human beings.

Q: Talking about Geneva …

What seems important concerning the international community is that Geneva and Switzerland remain aware not only of their international vocation and their fidelity to their humanitarian tradition, but also the importance of maintaining the international and diplomatic community in Switzerland. In order to achieve this there is much work to be done in many areas.

One of these areas is continuing to improve the reception of the international community in practical terms, through a better infrastructure, receiving the NGOs, etc. There are also efforts to be made in order to break down the barriers between the local population in Geneva and the international community. This is a long-term objective. Everyone must make an effort, including the international community itself.

If you then examine the other issues in Geneva, these are in my opinion minor problems. It has been said that Geneva is the smallest of the big cities. It certainly has the problems of a big city, such as security issues, transportation, housing problems, but these situations are there to be resolved. First we must put these problems in context, but it is also certain that we must try to find a solution to them. Then there is the built-up area which is spreading out onto the border zone, and there I think there is a big effort to be made. We must work even better with our French partners, as also with the Vaudois. We must reflect on the greater Geneva, beyond our borders today.

Q: Do you think that other people are willing to accept the greater Geneva?

I believe that it is also in their interest; it brings wealth and encourages increased economic activity. In Geneva we have many workers who live on the other side of the border, and their contribution helps us to run our economy. In addition there are many Swiss citizens living in France, which is something that has benefited the local economy. To create this “big Geneva” is a beautiful project, but a complicated one since it involves collaboration between two states and many different political parties. In addition, in the current climate, immigration has become a sensitive issue and immediately leads to a number of xenophobic slogans that damage this vision of a greater Geneva.

Then there is the question of expense. Of course, Switzerland is expensive, not only for foreigners but also for the Swiss population itself. It is true that we have a high standard of living, but there are others who have a still higher one. I know that the international organizations are considering delocalization because of the high local costs, the availability of better premises –– competition is tough. However, what one should also bear in mind is the high concentration of expertise, the networking opportunities that exist here which are really unique. Between international organizations, multinational corporations, institutes, etc., there is an international milieu here that is unique in the world. It is just exceptional that you can find almost everything in Geneva, all kinds of different expertise. That, of course, also has a special price. I am on the Board of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, a small international humanitarian organization that is in particular known for its mediation skills. The question of the level of expense is always something that is under consideration, but we have to compare it to the advantages of being based in Geneva.

Q: Do you think that the loss of banking secrecy, stricter international legislation, rumours about money laundering, etc., have damaged Geneva’s reputation as an international financial centre?

Not directly Geneva. We should separate the issues. Concerning the money laundering issues, I would say that Switzerland is not the most concerned. At an early stage, Switzerland took action against dirty money and I think, at least on this point, our banking reputation is clean. Sometimes there are cases that are highlighted in the press but, honestly, compared to other banking centres in the world I think Switzerland can be taken as a reference.

Swiss banking secrecy is a different issue. It is true that we had to concede ground on banking secrecy, stepping back because it was imposed on us from outside. Today, the automatic exchange of information is considered normal in the banking industry. These measures have forced banks to reinvent themselves. I am very confident in the Swiss banking system, because I think they will adapt to this new situation. Some of them have already done so. I believe the qualities that we offer, such as stability, reliability, management, etc., will also compensate for the loss of banking secrecy. We should not over-dramatize. I think there are many banks that have adopted a new strategy in this matter.

About the image, I think there is lot of exaggeration. Switzerland is associated with banking clichés in both positive and negative ways. This is something that will continue. In terms of reputation, I do not believe that these images have caused much damage. However, I feel that now with the new legislation, this will further strengthen the image of Swiss banking as serious, reliable and delivering a high quality of service.

Q: You will soon leave local politics for national politics. What would you like to achieve in that area?

My career has always dealt with national and international issues. My aspiration is to represent the interests of Geneva, as I would if I were elected by Geneva. I would, however, like to stress that the interests of Geneva are often the same as the interests of Switzerland. First of all, the opening of Switzerland to the world as well as maintaining international Geneva are priorities. Much has been done, but nothing is guaranteed, so you have to keep working at it.

Then, of course, comes the foreign and European political aspect that is essential for us. How do we handle and regulate our relations with the European Union about the free movement of persons, particularly after the Swiss vote on 9 February 2014 limiting immigration. The implementation in full legislature will take place by 2017. The people said “no” to the free movement of individuals, but we must find a solution. One solution might be that the State will dictate how many people can come and work here. But there is another problem. If the agreement on abolishing free movement comes into force, other bilateral agreements will also be affected too. This will create an extremely difficult situation within the European Union. It is of the utmost importance to find a solution, even if it means organizing another vote on the same subject. This issue is a priority.

Yet another priority for Geneva concerns the infrastructure. There are many ongoing projects whose funding depends in part on the Confederation. There are other issues of equal importance: one is corporate taxation. We are conducting a great reform of business taxation imposed on us by the OECD, and we must also find a balance that would have important consequences for us. As you see, there are plenty of issues to be dealt with …