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Couchepin highlights Switzerland's "European" role

Pascal Couchepin (right) tours the Hanover Fair on Monday

(Keystone)

The Swiss economics minister, Pascal Couchepin, says Switzerland is "surprisingly European" even though it is not a member of the European Union.

Speaking at a Swiss reception at the Hanover industrial fair in Germany, Couchepin said that Switzerland maintained strong economic ties with Europe.

"Although Switzerland politically has not joined the EU, the country is European from a cultural and in particular economic point of view," Couchepin said.

About 60 per cent of the country's exports are destined for the European Union, while Switzerland imports about 80 per cent of its goods from within the EU.

The annual Hanover fair is the international hub of high-tech, cutting-edge industrial technology and is considered a sensitive barometer of underlying business trends.

With 195 Swiss firms present in Hanover, Switzerland is the fourth largest exhibiting nation, after Germany, Italy and France.

Euro compatibility

Couchepin explained that the Swiss economy had been active in preparing for the introduction of the euro since the beginning of 1999, with the majority of export companies now "euro compatible".

"These companies make their bills out in euros and pay their European suppliers in euros," he said.

He added that payment in euros was as a rule also accepted in Swiss regions bordering the euro zone, as well as in major tourist centres and Swiss railway stations.

"You can see that the advantages of the single currency for European citizens and firms don't stop at the Swiss border," Couchepin told his audience in Germany.

The economics minister added that it remained to be seen if the Swiss themselves would also use the euro as a means of payment in Switzerland.

"With the continuing strength of the franc, this is not very likely," he commented.

Bilateral agreements

Couchepin also took the opportunity in Hanover to outline the advantages of the set of bilateral agreements negotiated between Switzerland and the EU, which are due to come into force on June 1.

He said the accords would break down important trade barriers, open up the procedure for public sector procurement, ensure Swiss scientists continue to have access to European research programmes and guarantee mutual recognition of training and diplomas.

He added that after a transitional period, the accords would also bring about the free movement of labour.

Swiss economic relations with the host country of the six-day industrial fair have been close for many years, with Germany ranking as Switzerland's main trading partner.

Record year

Figures published by the Germany-Switzerland Chamber of Commerce in Zurich suggest 2001 was another record year for the exchange of goods between the two countries.

The trade volume between Switzerland and Germany rose last year by 4.3 per cent to SFr71.2 billion ($42.81 billion), while German exports to Switzerland totalled SFr41.9 billion, a figure which represents 32.2 per cent of total Swiss imports.

Switzerland last year increased its exports to Germany to SFr29.3 billion, representing 3.6 per cent of total German imports.

Balz Hösly, CEO of Osec Business Network Switzerland - the organisation which promotes Swiss foreign trade - says Switzerland's exports are performing well on the international market, despite less than perfect conditions such as a weak euro and slower growth in demand.

"The strategy of developing and marketing top-quality specialist products, outstanding supplier loyalty and customer-based services, as well as the bilateral agreements between the EU and Switzerland...offset Switzerland's supposed disadvantage as a non-member of the EU," he said.

by Robert Brookes with agencies


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