Swiss president Doris Leuthard has reassured Portugal of the important contribution its sizeable community in Switzerland makes to the Swiss economy.
Leuthard made the comments in an interview with swissinfo.ch on the sidelines of her stop in Lisbon earlier this week. It was the first official visit of a Swiss president to Portugal since 2003.
swissinfo.ch: Ms President, the Portuguese head of state visited Switzerland last year, and now you are in Portugal. What are your impressions?
Doris Leuthard: The country [Portugal] has long been regarded as a cause of concern within the European Union because of its weak growth, high unemployment, and a persistently high level of debt. But for the last two years there has been a different spirit. The growth of the economy is exceptionally high and the country is doing a lot of positive things for the future. Consequently, there is a reduction in unemployment and even the debt situation is improving. We are very impressed.
swissinfo.ch: In your speech at the official residence of the Portuguese president, you talked about possible cooperation between Switzerland and Portugal in the areas of renewable energy and science.
D.L.: We are already cooperating in several areas. In the scientific field, it is focused on cancer research. That is why we are looking at ways to strengthen this cooperation and possibly even organise a conference for Portuguese and Swiss scientists. In the energy sector, cooperation between the two countries has already been established through an exchange between government agencies. But we want to expand this relationship. There is a lot of Swiss investment in Portugal.
swissinfo.ch: On the issue of immigration, there are 270,000 Portuguese citizens living in Switzerland. How is this community perceived and how important is it to the Swiss economy?
D.L.: We have, in fact, a large Portuguese community in Switzerland. They are very well integrated and therefore blend in, since they live harmoniously with the Swiss. Perhaps it is because we share many of the same values. We are very pleased with the contribution this community makes to so many areas of our economy and, at the same time, still manages to send money back to their families in Portugal, or even buy property in Switzerland. It is a symbiotic and quite positive relationship for the two countries. That is why we hope the Portuguese community in Switzerland will remain, or at least that not everyone will think about returning.
swissinfo.ch: Even if some hurdles relating to the decision by Swiss voters to reintroduce quotas for foreign workers have been overcome, there is still concern among EU citizens working in Switzerland. How do you explain the matter to your Portuguese peers?
D.L .: At lunch with Prime Minister António Costa I stressed the point that Switzerland is a country where 25% of the population has a foreign passport. That's a pretty high proportion. In Portugal, it is only 10%. This means that we are a very open country. But there are times of economic slowdown, and not all foreigners are as well integrated as the Portuguese. This can cause friction. But I think we have come up with good solutions. Our economy needs skilled labour. We need to be open. The Federal Council (the executive) supports these efforts, and I believe that the parliament does too, through the measures it has adopted. The Portuguese are still welcome in our country.