Friend of Switzerland named to key US post

Rob Portman, nominated as the new US Trade Representative.

President Bush has nominated a congressman with Swiss roots as United States Trade Representative.

This content was published on April 8, 2005 - 14:59

Rob Portman, whose family comes originally from northern Switzerland, could represent Washington in future negotiations with the Swiss side on a Free Trade Agreement.

Portman, a well-known Republican from Ohio, is regarded on Capitol Hill as patron of the 29-member Friends of Switzerland Caucus.

If the Senate gives the go-ahead to his appointment, Portman will succeed Robert Zoellick, who now works in Condoleezza Rice’s State Department.

Free Trade Agreement

Switzerland is at present considering entering negotiations with the US on a Free Trade Agreement. Bern could opt for an agreement on a bilateral level or within the framework of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), to which Switzerland belongs.

The other EFTA member states are Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein.

During the spring session of the Swiss parliament, Peter Briner, a Radical Party senator and president of the Switzerland-USA parliamentary association, submitted a question asking the government whether Switzerland wanted to start negotiations with the US – and if so, when. Washington is one of Switzerland’s most important trade partners.

In these negotiations, Portman – who knows Switzerland inside out – could represent the US. That is good news, according to Alex Biscaro, spokesman for the Swiss Embassy in Washington.

"It’s always an advantage to do business with someone who knows Switzerland," Biscaro told swissinfo.

Direct Line

Portman’s family comes originally from canton Solothurn. In 2002 the congressman came to Switzerland and visited the house of his great-grandfather. A year later, he was one of the first people to support his Swiss colleagues’ idea of creating a direct line between the Swiss parliament and Congress.

From the start, Portman has worked with Tammy Baldwin, a colleague in Wisconsin. Baldwin is co-president of the Friends of Switzerland Caucus, which has been in contact for the past two years with the Swiss Embassy in Washington and Swiss politicians.

Swiss parliamentarians launched their own parliamentary association, the 24-member Switzerland-USA group in 2001.

The delegations from the two countries met most recently in January 2005 at the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos.

Tough job

Portman has been a congressman for 12 years and is well known in Washington. "He is a very able and dynamic person," says Peter Briner, who knows Portman well.

Portman has close ties to the Bush family: "Robby Bobby", as President Bush calls him, used to work in the White House for George Bush senior. Portman later played an active part in George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns.

According to American commentators, Portman really has his work cut out. He has to convince the US Congress to accept the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which should eliminate trade barriers between the US and five Central American countries, as well as the Dominican Republic.


In brief

President Bush has nominated Ohio congressman Rob Portman as his new Trade Representative.

Portman has Swiss roots and belongs to the Friends of Switzerland Caucus, which works to forge closer relations with Switzerland.

If a Free Trade Agreement between the countries reaches the negotiating table, Portman could well represent the American side.

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