Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter today takes on the rotating presidency of the Swiss government. In an interview with swissinfo.ch, he outlines the main issues that lie ahead in 2014: the future of the bilateral approach with the European Union and chairing the 57-nation Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
Burkhalter, who succeeds Defence Minister Ueli Maurer as President, also emphasizes the need to maintain good relations with neighboring countries despite ongoing tax disputes.
swissinfo.ch: Your predecessor loved to portray little Switzerland under pressure from abroad. What image of Switzerland do you want to convey in your international appearances?
Didier Burkhalter: I would like to say that I get along with Ueli Maurer very well. We have different opinions and visions, but we understand each other.
This is the Swiss formula of collegial government which brings different personalities together who clash in a positive way to try to find the best solution for all.
We have clearly defined the vision of the presidency. We hope there will be a debate on the position and values of Switzerland in the world. That should be a practical not an ideological debate that revolves around the three main themes of youth, work and openness.
swissinfo.ch: This year you will be simultaneously foreign minister, president of the Swiss Confederation and chairman of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe). How will you prioritise?
D.B.: Governance also means to focus on the essentials and to set priorities where they are needed. Of course, these priorities are mainly influenced by the needs and the broad lines of the presidency of the Confederation.
Basically, the chairmanship of the OSCE is an additional, but complementary task. For contact at heads of state level, it is certainly beneficial to be Swiss president.
swissinfo.ch: You are often described as a politician who doesn’t like hogging the limelight. Will this have to change during your presidential year?
D.B.: The presidency brings additional duties and responsibilities. I will have to be a little more present both in Switzerland and abroad. But I'll remain myself. I'm not going to change because I am president.
I have my approach and I will stick to it.
swissinfo.ch: Switzerland’s relations with the EU will be one of the major themes of Swiss politics this year. How do you see the issue evolving?
D.B.: It’s a question of regulating the institutional issues. This includes the adoption of European law in the application of our bilateral agreements. This is essential so that the Swiss players who are active in the single European market are on the same footing as everyone else.
We have made proposals to address these issues and have two goals in mind namely that Switzerland maintains its level of prosperity while retaining its sovereignty. These proposals were very well received by the cantons and the parliamentary committees. The government also approved the negotiating mandate on December 18. Now we are waiting for the EU to agree a mandate so that we can start the negotiations. In the end it is parliament and possibly the people who have the last word.
The government's goal is to demonstrate clearly that it is a question of renewing the bilateral approach because this is the only way forward for Switzerland, at least in the coming decades.
This renewal is necessary if we want to preserve the bilateral approach because we have a strong interest in maintaining good relations with the EU.
swissinfo.ch: Shortly after you took up office as foreign minister two years ago, you promoted the improvement of relations with neighbouring countries as a priority. Now, especially in the area of tax, relations are not at their best.
D.B.: That effectively remains one of the major priorities of our foreign policy. I think we need to put still more effort into this area.
There are several positive aspects in relations with our neighbours.
With France, we have opened up a structured tax dialogue which we want to continue. Switzerland was the first country to participate in the World Expo 2015 project in Milan and things are going very well with Italy. We have also launched initiatives with our neighbours against the death penalty and for the protection of privacy.
Many things are going well but it's true that progress is needed in tax matters and also in the field of transport infrastructure. Thanks to intensified contacts, we are hoping for progress in these areas in the next two years.
Didier Burkhalter was born in 1960 and grew up in Auvernier on Lake Neuchâtel. At the University of Neuchâtel, he studied economics, graduating with a master's.
He then worked in various capacities at the university and in the private sector. He is married and has three children.
Since 1985 he has been a member of the centre-right Radical Party. In 1991 he was elected to the Neuchâtel city government where he served until 2005.
In 2003 he was elected to the House of Representatives. In 2007 he switched to the Senate.
On September 16, 2009, he was elected to the cabinet. In 2010 and 2011 he headed the interior ministry and since January 1, 2012 the foreign ministry.
In 2014 Burkhalter will be both Swiss president and chairman of the OSCE.
By Olivier Pauchard and Andreas Keiser, swissinfo.ch
(Translated from French by Vincent Landon)