01/01/2020 05:00 –
They call him Mr. Europe in his country, but when he travels abroad he prefers to be called Mr. Switzerland. Roberto Balzaretti, Secretary of State for the European Union in the Swiss country since 2018, visits Madrid for a few days in full negotiation with Brussels so that the bilateral agreements between the two do not collapse. In this interview he talks about the EU, but also about Brexit, the trade war or the end of multilateralism in the 21st century.
QUESTION. Why does Switzerland have so many bilateral agreements with the European Union compared to other countries?
REPLY. It depends on your definition of bilateral agreements. You’re right. We have 130-135 bilateral agreements with the EU, but around 20 of them are really important.
Q. I have read that part of the Swiss people are not very happy with the current negotiations with the EU. You have received much criticism. For what? Why the Euroscepticism of the Swiss?
A. It is normal for me to be the most criticized person because I am the chief negotiator in Switzerland negotiating with the European Union. When we negotiate, we try to defend Swiss interests, which are defined by the federal government. The relationship between Switzerland and the European Union is a long story. Traditionally, we have been a very independent and neutral country. We have always had our own way of seeing things. Switzerland did not participate in either of the two world wars, and the Swiss do not like a very strong and centralized power, so we have a federal system with cantons that have their own powers. The federal government is relatively weak because the Swiss constitution wants it that way. If you try to convince people that an even more centralized power outside the country is good for them, you have a very difficult time. We do not try to join the European Union, but to have good relations based on the agreements we already have.
Q. In the Swiss elections, after climate change, relations with the European Union was one of the most important concerns among the Swiss people. Why?
A. I think there were also others such as social security, pensions, population aging, the medical system … But in international relations, it is understandable that your first concern is what is close to your borders. We are surrounded by EU countries, in addition to Liechtenstein. There are 1.4 million Europeans living in Switzerland and 320,000 ‘frontier people’ crossing the border every day. We exchange one billion euros every day in goods and one billion in services. We have very close relationships.
Q. From Switzerland criticisms are repeated against EU immigration policy. Would you like to influence the modification of the Dublin agreement?
A. Since we are associated with the Schengen System, we have to accept the European visa policy. We have voted in favor of Schengen many times and sometimes there are things that are good and sometimes are not. We believe that the Dublin system must be modified. Countries like Italy, Greece or Spain cannot be left alone, but neither can it be a system that opens all doors to Germany. We, as we are associated, can participate in that discussion.
Q. What is the opinion of the Swiss people about Brexit?
A. It was a popular vote in the United Kingdom. They know better than the Swiss what kind of country they want. What we have done after this referendum has been to speak with the British government to prepare for possible scenarios, including a ‘no deal’. If they left the EU without agreement, we have concluded bilateral agreements with the United Kingdom in key areas. Our relations with the United Kingdom are rich and varied. There are, for example, 150 flights between the United Kingdom and Switzerland per day. They are very important to us. Switzerland’s idea is to continue good relations with the United Kingdom and extend them.
Q. But what is the general feeling of the Swiss people? Sometimes, speaking with Swiss, you have the feeling that the word Europe is always linked to that of “crisis”.
A. It is not my duty to comment on the opinions of my citizens. We are in a very different situation. We want to expand and deepen our relations with the EU. For its part, the United Kingdom wants to leave the EU. We want to consolidate our bilateral approach with the EU and maintain our independence and not enter, of course. They want to leave. The situation is very different. Some Swiss approve of what the United Kingdom has done, but most are in favor of bilateral agreements with the EU.
Q. Now the worst is probably between the United Kingdom and the EU: reaching a trade agreement. You have spent many years negotiating with Brussels. What would be your main advice?
A. (Laughter). They don’t need lessons from me, they have been members for 50 years. They know the EU very well. Much better than me.
Q. We have talked about crisis in Europe. What does Switzerland think about the new wave of far-right parties? Are you worried about a possible dissolution of the EU as we know it?
A. It is a difficult question. Again, I don’t want to speak for the Swiss. I can speak for the government, which is convinced that the first thing is to have good relations with the EU and with the world, as well as maintain the markets we have and open new ones. In addition, we believe that Switzerland must remain a European country and defend its values. These two things are not contradictory. You can extend your commercial networks with all the countries of the world and, at the same time, defend European values: the rule of law, good governance, protection of human rights, the environment … We need a strong European continent.
Q. You mean that if the EU is strongly positioned against China, will Switzerland follow?
A. In that sense, I think we have anticipated. We have very good relations with China, we were among the first countries to recognize China in 1950 and we have a trade agreement with them. But, at the same time, precisely because we have established these relationships, we can discuss anything with them, including some issues that are not always easy to talk about. Our approach is not a “hard line” because we are not a great country to do so. But we are concerned about the principles when referring to the rule of law, etc. All of that is part of our DNA. But we do it in a more discreet way than other countries.
Q. What do you think is the role of Switzerland in the 21st century from a geopolitical point of view?
A. Let’s start with the role we can’t play. We cannot be a military power. We are not in the EU, nor in the NATO, nor are we a very large military power. But we want to contribute to world peace and security. We can contribute with other countries to defend multilateralism. We can facilitate, moderate or represent interests of other countries as we do with the United States in Iran or with Russia in Georgia. We would like to be on the Security Council in 2023-2024. We can also contribute to the ‘soft power’. We are also pointers in innovation, digitalization and everything that has to do with the financial sector, crypto, fin-tech…
Q. The trade war has affected you a lot.
A. Yes, it has been a disaster. We are the collateral victims of all these things. That is the reason why multilateralism is a key concept for us.
Q. Do you think you are the last defenders of multilateralism
A. We are not the only ones. I am listening to it in many countries. Multilateralism is essential.
Q. In Switzerland there is a lot of talk about the referendum that will take place in May 2020 on freedom of movement between the EU and Switzerland. What should we expect? Should we be worried?
A. Of course we are worried. To be precise, it is not a referendum, it is a constitutional initiative. 100,000 people in Switzerland can propose a reform of the constitution. In this case, if they win, we would have to convince the EU to return to a quota system without freedom of movement or, otherwise, we would have to end the bilateral agreement on the freedom of movement of workers. This is legally linked to the other agreements of the first package of Switzerland-EU bilateral agreements signed in 1999. Therefore, if you end up with one, six months later others will cease to exist.
Q. It has come to be qualified as Swiss Brexit.
A. Yes, it would be Swiss Brexit. A kind of Swexit. Not good. The government is completely against it, but the constitution allows these votes. It requires a simple majority of the population and cantons. That’s why you have to have 50% plus 1 and most cantons. It is a big obstacle, it is not easy to get it. But the government will explain to the Swiss the importance of freedom of movement with the EU. After this important vote, we will deal with the Swiss-EU institutional agreement, aimed at consolidating our relations with Brussels. In this regard, we want to protect the labor conditions of Swiss workers.
Q. Let’s talk about Catalonia. Anna Gabriel and Marta Rovira, two fugitive independence leaders of the Spanish Justice, live in Geneva (Switzerland). Do you think this situation can worsen the relationship between Switzerland and Spain?
A. I do not think so. The position of the Swiss government is very clear. We do not doubt the integrity of the Spanish territory. It is a national theme for Spain. But, on the other hand, in Switzerland there is freedom of movement and expression.
Q. Speaking of Catalonia, there is a very common debate in Spain about the possible federalization of the country. Switzerland is the best example. What can the Swiss example teach us? Many times academics and politicians discuss how many nations there are in Spain.
A. I do not know. It is not for us to dictate to another country its policy. In the seventies, in Switzerland there was a discussion about a part of a canton, Jura, which wanted to become a canton of its own. And this was, like almost everything in Switzerland, an issue that had to be discussed from below. You have to agree on a local level, a cantonal level, on a federal level, modify the constitution and agree on all parties. This is the only lesson that is universal. If you have a state, all parts of the state must agree to change it. That is what we conclude with Jura. It was not the same as Catalonia, because Jura stayed in the Swiss Confederation, but needs a very long process, the political desire to do so and speak to the other. It is not always easy.
Q. From the beginning of the 21st century, we thought we were going to a multilateral world full of supranational institutions, where nation-states would increasingly decide less. However, it seems that the trend is the opposite.
A. With regard to the European Union, I do not believe that the EU has blurred the feeling and national belonging. Being a bit more abstract, I think everyone thinks that globalization was the future. Now we have realized that there is no globalization without very strong roots in a local community. Both are important. Piero Bassetti already said it: we have to be “glocal”. Be global but, at the same time, continue to have references in your language, in your town, in your canton, in your country. Of course it’s very difficult, it’s like a pendulum. I believe that together we are stronger. And that is the way Switzerland sees international relations. We want to have very close ties with the EU, but in another way. That is the lesson. There is not always a way of doing things even one way. There are many geometries to do the same. The relationship between the EU and Switzerland is a success story.
Q. What will happen first, Switzerland entering the EU or the end of the EU as we know it?
A. We do not consider entering the European Union. On the other hand, I can’t imagine its end. An evolution, a change? Maybe. But the end, no. History never goes back. It continues, it changes. But I can’t imagine the end of the EU. And it won’t be in anyone’s interest.