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Europe tops Finnish talks

Swiss President Moritz Leuenberger has a good grasp of the EU dossier


Swiss President Moritz Leuenberger has begun an official three-day visit to Finland, which took over the rotating six-month European Union presidency on July 1.

Talks on Friday in Turku with Tarja Halonen, the president of Finland, focused on the state of Swiss-EU relations and the future of the European constitution.

Switzerland has concluded two sets of bilateral agreements with the EU and would like to negotiate similar agreements in a number of areas, as confirmed in the recent "Europe 2006" government report.

But relations with the Union have been strained recently. The EU Commission has been very critical of some Swiss cantons, which have convinced many foreign firms to move their headquarters there by granting them generous tax breaks.

The commission has said that the financial incentives amounted to little more than state subsidies, and were therefore in breach of Swiss-EU treaties. Switzerland claims however that this is simply not the case.

On Monday Leuenberger met the commission's head, José Manuel Barroso, but failed to make any headway on the dispute. Barroso has urged Swiss voters accept a SFr1 billion contribution to the EU's co-called Cohesion Fund for new member states.

Swiss citizens will decide in November whether to accept the funding, which would be spread out over ten years. While a "no" vote would not affect bilateral accords between Switzerland and the EU, proponents fear it could hinder future negotiations.


The Swiss president will also attend an informal meeting of European environment ministers and experts in Turku on Saturday and Sunday to look at new policies and the issue of eco-efficiency.

This is the first time that Switzerland has been invited to such a session, which are traditionally organised by the country holding the EU presidency. Ministers from European Free Trade Association, European Economic Area and EU candidate countries will also be in attendance.

Switzerland backs the introduction of common measurable objectives for a global environmental policy, similar to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.

According to the environment ministry, such objectives already exist for climate policy – the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change – and the preservation of biodiversity, but need to be agreed upon for the main spheres of environmental policy.

Switzerland, like the EU, is a strong supporter of a global organisation to oversee the environment.


Scandinavia is currently a popular destination for Swiss ministers.

This week Pascal Couchepin, the interior minister, has been in Denmark and Sweden on a working visit to familiarise himself with their health and social systems.

"Rather than finding definite solutions, I have encountered a willingness to act and innovate, which is refreshing," Couchepin told Le Temps newspaper.

Interior ministry spokeswoman Katja Zürcher said that the visit had been an opportunity to compare notes on issues such as demographic growth, youth unemployment and solidarity among the population.

In the Swedish capital Couchepin met Ylva Johansson, the Swedish health minister, to discuss public health matters, in particular looking closely at the Swedish system that allows the prices of medicines to be regulated.

The interior minister continues his tour of the Nordic region on Friday in Helsinki, where he will meet Liisa Hyssälä, the Finnish health minister.

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

1972: Switzerland and the European Community sign a free trade agreement.
1992: Bern lodges an application for membership of the European Union. In the same year, the people reject membership of the European Economic Area.
2002: the first package of bilateral agreements with the European Union comes into force.
2004: Bern and Brussels sign a second package of measures.
2006: a government report is published that says that Switzerland would continue its policy of consolidating bilateral ties with the EU.

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