Parliament has supported a counterproposal to maintain the Swiss embassy in Guatemala, but the Senate refused to give the thumbs-up to a call by the Swiss Club in Chicago to maintain the consulate general there.
Following a short debate on Thursday, the Senate unanimously decided to snub plans by the foreign ministry to close the Swiss representation to Guatemala City and move all its services to Costa Rica’s capital, San José. The other chamber, the House of Representatives, had voted on the issue in March.
Committee speaker Anne Seydoux-Christe stressed the crucial role of the Swiss embassy for the promotion of peace and the protection of human rights in the fragile region.
“The presence of Switzerland is needed for diplomatic reasons and to support Swiss non-governmental organisations active in Guatemala,” she said.
She added that a full diplomatic mission is important for the negotiations on a free trade accord between Switzerland and the central American state. The closure of the Swiss embassy would also be seen as an unfriendly gesture to Guatemala, which plans to open an embassy to Switzerland, according to Seydoux-Christe.
“Changing geostrategic situation”
Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter said the cabinet was taking note of the parliamentary decision, but he pointed out that Switzerland’s diplomatic network had to cut spending by CHF30 million ($31.7 million) under a programme approved by parliament.
He said it was not easy to balance financial constraints and growing demands for a greater visibility of Switzerland around the world.
“We have to adapt constantly to the changing geostrategic situation,” he said.
Switzerland opened new diplomatic representations recently in Qatar, Myanmar and India. As a result it had to reassess the situation from a financial point of view. That’s why the cabinet wanted to close the embassy to Guatemala and set up a diplomatic hub for the whole central American region in Costa Rica, according to Burkhalter.
As a result of opposition by parliament and NGOs to the government-sponsored plans, Burkhalter agreed to keep the embassy to Guatemala. However, the consular services will be closed and moved to Costa Rica’s capital, San José.
The Senate on Thursday refused to join the House of Representatives, which sought to overturn a cabinet decision about the planned closure of the consulate general in Chicago.
Karin Keller-Sutter could not convince a majority of her colleagues to throw their weight behind her proposal to maintain the Swiss representation to the US.
She argued the consulate in the Windy City was particularly important for the Swiss business community and for Swiss tourists.
“Switzerland as a small state needs a good network and top diplomats,” she said.
“I’m sorry to let down the Swiss Club of Chicago and the business representatives,” she added after the debate.
The professional consulate will now be replaced by an honorary consulate on the shores of Lake Michigan.
The House of Representatives on Monday came out in favour of easing access for the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA) to individual Swiss citizens overseas via email.
The proposal, still to be confirmed by the Senate, would allow the OSA to contact directly expatriates registered with Swiss missions abroad.
At the moment, an expat can only be reached through Swiss clubs and associations.
OSA hopes to increase the credibility of the Swiss Abroad Council, the legislative body representing the interests of the Swiss expats.
The government is opposed to the proposal, saying it would breach data protection rules.
The Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA) welcomed the decision on the embassy to Guatemala City but was disappointed about the failure to prevent the closure of Chicago.
“It is a bad signal,” said OSA director Rudolf Wyder, adding that too many Swiss consulates had been closed over the past few years.
“It does not make sense for the consular network. We doubt whether the intended synergies will lead to the desired savings.”
Wyder says the government’s policy on the diplomatic network will be tabled at the next meeting of the Swiss Abroad Council and the annual Congress of the Swiss Abroad to take place in August.
A foreign ministry statement confirmed the embassy to Guatemala will be maintained. Costs have to be reduced by using “potential synergies to the maximum possible degree”.
The NGO Guatemala Net said coordinated and tenacious lobbying paved the way for the “excellent” news from parliament.
“It is good to know that civil society in Switzerland and politicians are willing to pay attention to a country like Guatemala,” the statement said.
Switzerland currently has 173 Swiss embassies and missions attached to international organisations as well as general consulates across the world. The figure does not include honorary consulates.
More than 715,000 Swiss citizens live abroad, according to official data from December 2012.
Most of them are registered in neighbouring countries France, Germany and Italy, but there is also a large Swiss community in North America.
About 150,000 Swiss expats have registered to take part in nationwide votes and in elections in Switzerland.
(With input from Olivier Pauchard and Marcela Aguila), swissinfo.ch