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Borders and EU concerns to drive foreign policy in 2016

Switzerland, a relative haven in the centre of crisis-hit Europe, heads into 2016 focused on its relations with critical border regions and the tumultuous European Union.

The foreign ministry has laid out its top goals for the coming year, led by relations with neighbours and a special focus on border regions.

Next is building deeper ties with Brussels while also preserving Swiss economic interests and “political room” to manoeuvre, the government said in a statement.

That and another goal – promoting stability in Europe and beyond – were made more complicated with Swiss voters’ approval of a 2014 initiative to curb immigration from the 28 state bloc.

The Swiss cabinet, which had opposed the initiative, is still trying to negotiate a solution with the EU, but said that if necessary it would use a “safeguard clause” in the law to impose limits and quotas if immigration reaches a certain threshold.

Global governance and mediation

Another major goal for the Swiss next year is to promote global governance, with Geneva as a natural hub for organisations and events. Related to that is what Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter describes as an effort to become more actively involved in mediation.

In the midst of Europe, Switzerland was largely unscathed in 2015 by the global ripples from the struggles of austerity-hit European countries and the conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, along with the flood of refugees and migrants arriving in Europe and the threat of terrorism.

In 2016, Burkhalter sees Switzerland building on its long-recognised role in international mediation, which derives from political and social factors such as neutrality, direct democracy and lack of a colonial past.

“We must redouble our efforts for peace and security. This is both an objective of our constitution and a priority of our foreign policy,” Burkhalter told a conference in Bern last month.

A historic first meeting between then United States President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev took place in Geneva in 1985. Since then the United Nations’ European headquarters in Geneva has been the scene of numerous peace talks.

Competition among peacemakers

But the Swiss and the UN face growing competition from other nations and international and regional organisations interested in peace-making, and mediation itself has changed too. Today, negotiations are more complex than trying to reach a truce and improve security – increasingly any talks must include questions about factors such as sovereignty, power-sharing and distribution of wealth.

Swiss peace policy has also long focused on its “good offices”, whether trying to actively mediate and broker a resolution to a dispute or acting as a go-between for two non-speaking countries. It first acted as a protecting power for the interests of the Kingdom of Bavaria and the Dukedom of Baden in France during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-1871.

At its peak Switzerland juggled dozens of other nations’ interests during the Second World War. Another busy time was during the Cold War, but since then the number of mandates has dropped to just four – Iran in Egypt; the US in Iran; Russia in Georgia; and Georgia in Russia.

Two other mandates, involving the US and Cuba, ended in 2015.

Also in the past year, the Swiss Armed Forces – which has sent dozens of peace support missions to other countries over the last 62 years – crossed the symbolic threshold of deploying its 10,000th peacekeeper.

That has been one of the military’s three main missions since the Swiss sent a small unarmed contingent to monitor the border between North and South Korea, with the 1953 ceasefire accord. The other two main missions are to provide defence and support for civilian authorities.



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