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Bern builds new bridges with Washington

Congressman Robert Portman speaking at the meeting in Washington swissinfo.ch

Politicians from Switzerland and the United States are hailing a new dawn in relations between the two countries.

This content was published on February 13, 2003 - 16:09

The announcement follows the inaugural meeting between the "Friends of Switzerland Caucus" - made up of 16 US congressmen and women - and the Swiss-US parliamentary association.

At the meeting in Washington on Wednesday, members of both groups spoke of the need to develop improved contacts and lines of communication.

The Swiss hope that stronger ties with Congress will help pre-empt controversies that have dogged the relationship in recent years.

Relations took a dive earlier this year with the publication of a book by the former US undersecretary of state, Stuart Eizenstat, about Holocaust victims' struggles to get reparations from Swiss banks.

The book's cover, which shows the Swiss flag covered with a swastika made up of gold bars, sparked outrage across the country.

The Swiss-US parliamentary association admits that while it can't do anything about past damage, it should be able to help head off future problems.

"By establishing a network of good friends in the US Congress, we can prevent such misunderstandings at the parliamentary level," Swiss parliamentarian and group chairman, Peter Briner, told swissinfo.

Swiss ties

The American caucus is chaired by Rob Portman, a Representative from Ohio, who is of Swiss decent.

Portman is also one of the rising stars of the Republican Party - he was chosen by Speaker Dennis Hastert to head the Republican Leadership in the House and liaise with the Bush administration.

Democrat Tammy Baldwin is the co-chairman. She says that the Swiss-American friendship is deeply anchored in her district of central Wisconsin.

"In 1845, more than a hundred families emigrated from Glarus to Winsconsin, where they formed New Glarus and to this day, their descendants remain involved in dairy and cheesemaking," she said.

"There is also an extensive amount of business between Wisconsin and Switzerland, in particular in the banking world in the pharmaceutical industry and research and development," added Baldwin.

European divide

Swiss parliamentarians also hope to give their American colleagues the benefit of the European perspective on foreign policy issues - a timely move, some might argue, in view of the current trans-Atlantic split over Iraq.

"We have to help convince the United States to listen more to the rest of the world," said parliamentarian Roland Wiederkehr.

Briner, who headed the Swiss delegation, himself admitted that the Americans needed to pay more attention to other nations.

"The United States sometimes forgets that there are other countries," he said.

Looking ahead to future meetings with his US counterparts, Briner added that there were many issues of mutual interest for the two groups to discuss.

"At the moment we can talk about international terrorism and security issues, but we can also discuss global trade, direct investment - in fact anything that appears on the political agenda."

Congress

He added that while these issues were usually discussed at government level, it often helped to explain Swiss actions in more detail to members of Congress.

"We are not asking them to do anything for us. We would rather try to make them understand our point of view on topics of mutual interest," said Briner.

The Americans say they have been taking note of Swiss actions, in particular moves to combat terrorism.

"Switzerland has taken a leading role in fighting the financing of terrorist networks," said US congressman Robert Portman.

"After September 11, it has become more important to hold open discussions," he added.

swissinfo, Jonathan Summerton and Scott Capper

Friends of Switzerland

The Swiss-US parliamentary association was set up in 2001 and is made up of 20 politicians from all parties.
Its US counterpart, the "Friends of Switzerland Caucas", was formed in January this year and consists of 16 congressmen and women.
The two groups are hoping to improve relations and cooperation between both countries.

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