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Brussels's man in Bern prepares for new role

Michael Reiterer, the first-ever European Commission head of delegation to Switzerland

Austrian Michael Reiterer has been appointed the first-ever European Commission head of delegation to Switzerland based in the capital, Bern.

Europe's first ambassador to Switzerland talks to swissinfo about his new mission, which will involve clearly explaining to Brussels the ongoing political climate in Switzerland.

swissinfo: What excites you most about your new position as the first European Commission head of delegation to Switzerland?

Michael Reiterer: It's a real challenge to be able to build something new such as the soon-to-be-established delegation. It involves a great deal of work, but I've been given considerable freedom in terms of the arrangements.

I obviously hope to contribute towards improving communication between Bern and Brussels, especially as there are several pending issues that need to be resolved.

swissinfo: How do you propose to make the European Union more accessible to the Swiss?

M.R.: When Austria was deciding to join the EU, I was extremely active in "public diplomacy" to inform the Austrian people about the advantages and disadvantages of membership.

That's also an area that will be important in Switzerland. I will be talking to politicians as well as the general public and organisations that might be sceptical about the EU or hold positive opinions.

swissinfo: The Swiss authorities hope that via the new Bern delegation the EU will demonstrate greater understanding of Switzerland's highly developed system of direct democracy – do you agree?

M.R.: This strong element of direct democracy in Swiss politics is not very compatible with the EU system. Obviously there are differences of opinion between both sides and compromises have to be found.

But the most important thing is to maintain open channels of communication. My job is to act as an "interpreter", communicating the mood of my talks with politicians and the general public - all the things you don't read about in the papers.

swissinfo: Doesn't it give you a headache knowing that you will have to explain to Brussels how the complicated Swiss political system works?

M.R.: Brussels is also said to be complex. But I feel that I can explain it well enough and personally I enjoy a certain amount of political complexity.

Understanding Switzerland, with its multi-linguistic and multicultural traditions, is not that simple. The way in which the political system has been constructed is particular to Switzerland. But I consider these to be challenges.

swissinfo: You know Switzerland very well from your time here as a student and when you worked at the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva. What are you best memories?

M.R.: I have particularly fond memories of my student days. I had extremely good teachers at the Graduate Institute for International Studies in Geneva, who I still think very highly of.

When I think about my two years as negotiator at the WTO in Geneva, I can't help thinking about the failure of the Doha Round of world trade talks. I was sent to Geneva in 1990 to work for the WTO only for a short time during the Uruguay Round, but I stayed for two years.

But coming back to the Doha Round, I tend to agree with WTO's director-general Pascal Lamy, who said: "there are no winners, only losers".

swissinfo: For four years you served as deputy head of the delegation of the European Commission to Japan. What is the perception of the EU in Asia?

M.R.: In Europe we have slightly forgotten that peacekeeping was the original impetus for the founding of the EU. In Asia, the Korean peninsula is divided, North Korea remains a threat, there are tensions surrounding Taiwan, and border issues; war is a constant danger.

This original idea behind the EU's construction has many Asian followers. No one really believes that EU institutions can be simply transplanted to Asia, but many people are very interested in the EU's fundamental principles.

swissinfo-interview: Simon Thönen

In brief

The European Commission is still in search of offices for its delegation.

Brussels claims that the official opening of the "EU embassy" could take place in 2006.

Michael Reiterer has been appointed as the first-ever European Commission head of delegation to Switzerland in the capital, Bern.

Fifty-two-year-old Reiterer, who was born in Austria, has served as deputy head of the delegation of the European Commission to Japan for four years.

Since 2005, as well his diplomatic activities, he is lecturer on international relations at the University of Innsbruck.

Michael Reiterer is married, and has one daughter.

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