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TCW’s Brexit Watch


Our regular report from Bern, Switzerland

THE virus has laid low our centre forward and the Swiss are finding themselves under attack – once more – from their greedy neighbours in the big canton to the north.

Air traffic is reduced to a few helicopters and private jets at Belp, Bern’s airport, since Skywork, the local airline, filed for administration. Swissair went bust in 2005 after its American boss bought Sabena from the Belgian government. This was madness. A combination of UBS and the Federal Council let Swissair crash for the sake of SF100million (£83million) overnight money to keep them going. Many, many ordinary families lost their money when the national airline went bust.

Now the EU suggests that the Swiss Federal Air Office should no longer administer the successor airline Swiss, that it should become fully German/EU-administered and the usual Europhile politicians are suggesting that the Federal Air Office might as well close down. The Swiss People’s Party (SVP) National Assembly Member, Thomas Matter, put it this way: ‘If Swiss is a Swiss carrier then it’s administered by the Federal Air Office, full stop.’

You may well imagine the anger when the EU suggests further consolidation of Europe’s air industry. Lufthansa bought two charter airlines partly owned by Swissair at the time of the crash for SF310million (£257million). The cost of all the cantonal and federal support for the airports from which Swissair and its charter companies operated was two billion Swiss francs at that time. Today that cost is significantly more. Swiss has made a billion or more profit for Lufthansa since the takeover in 2005. Much of that profit is thanks to the annual support from the cantons and the Federal Government. On Friday anyone with SF3.8billion to spare on the Swiss Borse could have bought Lufthansa, the parent airline of Swiss.

The only airline that prepared for the pandemic or other disaster is Helvetica, owned by SVP founder Christoph Blocher. He owns a successful industry and if he bought Swiss that would be like Nigel Farage grabbing the profitable chunk of Lufthansa and busting the German flagship in a single stroke.    

Meanwhile the big debate heats up as 19 April comes closer and the Federal Council must decide whether to continue the lockdown or relax it. The cost to the economy is four billion Swiss francs a week. Working from home reduces that significantly but everyone knows that even prosperous Switzerland cannot stop working for much longer. Alain Berset, Federal Councillor for the Health Department, says he’s staying at home this Easter – he hasn’t seen his home since the crisis began.

Berset stresses that it’s too early to relax the lockdown for Easter. Leaders of the main business associations support the government but also argue that the government must have an exit plan ready. Many small start-ups and self-employed are being hit harder than big employers who fit more easily into government support schemes.

Today’s translation is Peter Nonnenmacher from London for Der Bund under the headline: ‘The BBC benefits from the pandemic’.

‘It is only a few weeks ago that the world’s most renowned and largest broadcasting company had to fear for its traditional role and for its future in general in its own country. Boris Johnson’s Tories had declared war on the “old aunt”. Among other things, Johnson’s government wanted to take revenge for the fact that in Brexit times the BBC had not obediently followed the proponents’ lead, but had stuck to neutrality. 

‘During the election campaign, the institution also sought, as is its mission, to carefully balance the balance. The fact that Johnson simply did not want to face several uncomfortable interviews was openly criticised by BBC people. The Tory right-wing representatives did not forgive the station for this. In February, then Media Secretary Nicky Morgan ordered a review of whether to abolish TV licence fees in the UK and whether the BBC should be financed by subscriptions in the future, as Netflix and other providers were. Johnson’s chief strategist Dominic Cummings became even clearer. Sunday Times journalists quoted him as saying that the BBC should be in a “frying pan”. That was just in mid-February.

‘Then came the coronavirus. And all of a sudden Boris Johnson found himself simply dependent on the help of the BBC, because it was impossible to operate past the institution. Attempts by the ministry to find other sources failed miserably. In fact, already at the beginning of the crisis more and more British people turned to the BBC again. No wonder: the old trustworthiness of the public broadcaster, its defiantly preserved independence, the sound judgment of its experts and the breadth of its reporting proved indispensable in the crisis. From the breakfast programmes to the evening news, from the live press conferences from Downing Street and their commentary to the news stream and the rich explanatory material on the BBC website, a population plunged into uncertainty was offered a reliable foothold.

‘All at once the BBC ratings have shot up steeply on all fronts. The BBC’s news channel alone now reports 70 per cent more viewers than at the same time last year. “As the national broadcaster, the BBC has a special role to play in this time of national emergency,” says BBC Director General Tony Hall in a tone reminiscent of distant war times. “We must all pull together to get through this.” 

‘In all haste, the programme will be adapted accordingly. Additional school and educational programmes are offered, extra programmes for children, yoga and fitness classes with celebrities. Cooking tips with well-known chefs are available, colourful garden shows, live performances by pop stars in their living rooms and virtual church services for believers of various denominations.

‘The possibility of a temporary escape from a horrible reality is, according to BBC voices, not least to serve the “mental health” of the nation. There is likely to be a huge need for encouragement in the coming weeks as the virus continues to spread in the UK. As long as the BBC’s massive apparatus can be kept running and sufficient staff are available as the crisis progresses, the institution will indeed resume the kind of function it performed – via radio and with far more modest resources – during the World War. In any case, the dismissal of almost 500 journalists in the news sector, which was still planned in February due to a shortage of money, has been “postponed” for the time being by Lord Hall. Of course, financial resources are still lacking. Of the conservative governments of David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson, the BBC has already shrunk by almost a third since 2010. Johnson has not yet promised the BBC any additional resources.’

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Adrian Hill
Adrian Hill
Adrian Hill. Former soldier and diplomat, afterwards member of CBI Council and author.

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