The Swiss Get a Reality Check but at least the trains still run on time
John and Silvia Andrews
up in the mountain villages of Switzerland, change comes slowly.
Villagers will soon be preparing for the winter, bringing the cows
From the high pastures, stockpiling row after row of neatly chopped
Just like last year; just like every year. But down in the valleys,
a strange wind is gradually gaining strength, a foreign wind....and
borne on this wind are the first small seeds of change.
It didn't start with
the events of September 11th, although those Shockwaves rumbled effortlessly
past the carefully guarded borders - more political and psychological
than physical - and into the towns. For a long time, Switzerland was seen
as a safe haven in times of trouble. Economically speaking, money tended
to flow into the Swiss Franc and the stock market, both of which were
seen as being stable and resistant to the turmoil that affected more volatile
nations (including America and Britain). This time, it has been different.
At first, there was a knee-jerk reaction as investors scrambled to pour
their money into anything Swiss; but then a reaction set in and, like
a tide, the flow stopped and then reversed direction.
Swiss markets suffered just like all the others.
Adding to what would anyway have been sizeable woes were the troubles
Of what used to be known as Swissair, an affair routinely described by
the Swiss media as a debacle. Swissair went bankrupt, its balance sheet
Having plunged faster than a skier on one of the country's famous black
The plug was first pulled by its leading banker, UBS, who then took part
A bailout between the state, the leading banks, and a collection of
Supportive businesses. Swissair had generally been felt to have been punching
above its weight, trying to support a world class airline from a country
roughly the population of Scotland. Switzerland's non-membership of the
hampered the airline from forming partnerships with Europe's premier carriers,
and so it embarked on a policy of taking sizeable stakes in lower-tier
These investments proved costly in more than one sense - the balance
Sheet was weakened, and its reputation for top class standards took a
knock. The general malaise that, post-September, affected all airlines
not have come at a worse time for Swissair, and probably was responsible
for providing the knockout punch. The end was dramatic: credit was cut
stranding aeroplanes full of unbelieving passengers in various locations.
The embarrassing reality was that Swissair didn't have enough money to
Pay for the fuel to fly the planes home. The national airline of one of
world's richest countries had run out of cash.
Unthinkable! cried the headlines in the local and national newspapers.
UBS, initially seen as the villain of the piece, found the world to be
an unforgiving place, as hordes of unhappy customers - including, by all
accounts, a healthy chunk of the Swissair staff, who also protested noisily
outside the bank's fortress-like head office - expressed their dismay
by using the one weapon the Swiss have in spades: their bank accounts.
Money flooded out of UBS, mostly to the benefit of the country's small
Regional banks. Unthinkable? For many of the populace, for whom the words
"business" and "failure" seldom appear in the same
sentence, yes; although the shock was perhaps not so great in the financial
community. After all, UBS itself was in such poor shape a couple of years
ago that, in order to survive, it was forced into a merger with arch rivals
SBC. Merger, in this instance, can loosely be translated as takeover.
The newly combined bank, whilst retaining the UBS name, became to all
intents and purposes an SBC controlled entity. A rose by any other name.
What shocked everybody - the waves carrying far, far beyond the borders
Of this island-like, landlocked state - what really was unthinkable
happened in the small and highly prosperous lakeside town of Zug, when
disgruntled former policeman walked into the local parliament building
dead fourteen people before turning the gun on himself. For those of us
the UK, accustomed to hearing and seeing acts of extreme violence in
Northern Ireland and even the mainland, it is hard to imagine the shock
This terrible killing brought about. The local police chief pointed out
that, until then, there hadn't been any murders in Zug that year; nor
year before that, for that matter. Not one. Not only was it the worst
of its kind ever seen in the country - it was the only crime of its kind.
This simply doesn't happen in Switzerland.
Or rather - it does now. The unpleasant facts of life - plunging stock
markets, bankrupt businesses, mass murder - that, for so long, have been
seen by the Swiss as being the unfortunate lot of other countries, have
succeeded in breaking down the barriers that the country has so proudly
and steadfastly defended. Perhaps aware that a sea-change was under way,
the Swiss peeped their heads above the parapet and voted - but only just
- to join the United Nations. Whether this really is the start of a new
Switzerland, whether a country is emerging that wants to fully engage
With its European neighbours and the rest of the world, remains to be
The Swiss, whether doctors in the towns or shepherds in the mountains,
have traditionally been wary of the outside world; but now the outside
world has come to Switzerland. The almost palpable fear in this proudly
independent state is that it might never go away.
© John and Silvia Andrews - October 2002
Travel in Hacktreks
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