Spain assumed the presidency of the European Union on January 1 and has repeatedly expressed its willingness to strengthen ties between Brussels and Bern.
Fernando Riquelme, Spain’s ambassador to Bern, explains to swissinfo.ch Madrid’s outlook on sensitive Swiss topics like banking secrecy and the anti-minaret initiative.
With its willingness to renegotiate double taxation treaties, Switzerland has shown a desire to adapt to the OECD rules on banking secrecy. For that reason, Riquelme says Switzerland needs no “defender” at the EU.
The ambassador also says that the referendum in November 2009 to ban the construction of new minarets will not affect Swiss relations with the EU, its largest trading partner, or relations between the West and Islam in general.
swissinfo.ch: What are Spain’s objectives as the head of the EU during the first six months of 2010?
Fernando Riquelme: Spain faces the challenge of implementing all of the provisions of the Treaty of Lisbon that, apart from the voting system within the EU, brings two new institutions: the permanent EU presidency and the office of the High Representative, a sort of EU foreign minister who in turn is vice chairman of the commission.
swissinfo.ch: And the main challenges?
F.R.: The future vision of the EU from Spain, which was outlined here in Switzerland by Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos speaking before the Swiss Senate, is a policy of a bigger union in which negotiations with certain countries like Croatia are concluded immediately.
We also want to advance and conclude as far as possible negotiations with countries like Iceland that have applied to join the EU and to start negotiations with countries sensitive to what you mentioned [the minaret ban], such as Turkey.
But there is a third group of countries that do not have a voice and that Spain wants the EU to define a particular policy for. These are small countries like Liechtenstein, San Marino, Andorra and Monaco that normally do not appear in the preference list for EU foreign relations. Spain, during its presidency, will try to draw up the EU guidelines for foreign policy with those countries.
swissinfo.ch: You referred to Mr Moratinos's visit to Switzerland last October, when the minister pledged new efforts from the EU leadership to strengthen relations between Bern and Brussels. How could that affect issues such as banking secrecy?
F.R.: Banking secrecy is more of an issue for the OECD than for the EU and far more Swiss depend on it than European countries. There are indications from the OECD that countries that were considered tax havens or had regulations not in accordance with OECD standards will sign agreements on fiscal transparency and tax information with a number of countries.
Spain had at the time the most modern taxation agreement between Switzerland and a European country, and it had a formula that Switzerland could use as a model for new agreements. That is what recently happened with Denmark and other countries.
I do not think at this time Switzerland has a need of any defender but itself to advance the issue of banking secrecy in its fiscal relations with other countries.
swissinfo.ch: What is your opinion regarding the measures undertaken by Switzerland with regard to banking secrecy in the past year?
F.R.: It is clear that Switzerland has shown a will to adapt to the OECD standards.
swissinfo.ch: On November 29 the Swiss voted to ban the construction of new minarets, prompting criticism from within and outside the country. What is your reading on this?
F.R.: At first there was a very critical reaction to the Swiss vote, but I think that has faded as the days go by. It does not seem that the referendum will greatly influence European opinion about Switzerland.
I think it is entrenched in the problems arising from the contact between civilisations. Together with Turkey and within the United Nations, Spain launched the Alliance of Civilisations because of possible misunderstanding and conflict resulting from contact between civilisations - such as Western and Islamic - that could arise in many European countries, including Switzerland.
swissinfo.ch: Do you think this issue may have a later impact in the relationship of the West with Islam?
F.R.: No. I think it may be a passing episode... You did not prohibit freedom of religion or places of worship. The people of Switzerland simply ruled on an aspect concerning landscape and the look of its cities. That in principle should be linked to neither a dispute over religion nor civilization.
I think it's an issue that must be explained. I'm just a close witness of what happened in Switzerland and my opinion is just one more.
Marcela Águila Rubin, swissinfo.ch (Translated from Spanish by Tim Neville)
And another thing...
On the relationship between Switzerland and Spain: It's a very mature relationship and very good, without any dispute that may cast the slightest shadow.
On the status of the Spanish community in Switzerland: It is about 100,000 people. The figure will go down gradually as Spanish workers return, usually to retire. The younger generations who are born here are integrated into society and are considered Swiss as much as Spanish. They are non returnees. They have their life and their interests in this country.
On Swiss who visit or settle in Spain: There is a flow of retired people who take up residence in Spain or who spend much of the year there. And there is also a significant flow of tourists, in the order of 1.5 million people.
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