German ambassador has Swiss interests at heart

Frank Elbe is the new German ambassador to Bern. German embassy

Frank Elbe, the new German ambassador to Bern, says Germany and Switzerland are important trading partners – and he wants to keep it that way.

This content was published on August 17, 2003 - 14:02

Elbe told swissinfo he did not believe the long-running dispute over Zurich airport would sour relations between the two neighbours.

The two nations have been at loggerheads since the Swiss parliament rejected a controversial air transport accord in March this year.

The deal is aimed at cutting by a third the number of flights approaching Zurich airport over southern Germany where residents have complained of noise pollution.

Germany retaliated by imposing tougher flight restrictions, but has agreed to delay implementing them until October.

swissinfo: How would you characterise the relationship between Switzerland and Germany?

Frank Elbe: Outstanding – though it is equally true that most people don’t realise how important and how close this relationship is. Switzerland ranks ninth on our list of trading partners – making it more important in terms of foreign trade than Japan, for example.

And Germany is Switzerland’s most important trading partner – even ahead of the United States.

Working together at a regional level is also becoming more important as a means of contributing to stability and security in Europe.

swissinfo: At the moment there is a dark cloud on the horizon: the dispute over Zurich airport and noise pollution. Is that souring relations between the two countries at a political level?

F.E.: No, I don’t think so. But of course I have to recognise that this situation concerns the interests of people in Zurich as much as those living in the south-western part of Germany.

We have very recently had an agreement between the two ministers for transport, and the importance attached by them to finding a solution shows the political will is there to prevent the relationship deteriorating.

swissinfo: In the Swiss media, Germany is often portrayed as holding all the trump cards and almost bullying Switzerland into doing things it doesn’t want to do.

F.E.: I hear this occasionally – but not all over Switzerland. Is it really true though? Don’t the facts say something else?

We have no interest in bullying Switzerland. It is our intention to treat the country respectfully and to recognise that the interests of people in Zurich also matter. If it were not so there would be no need for us to negotiate.

For me, it’s very important to find an adequate solution which takes into consideration the interests of all concerned. And I would also like to point out that this conflict should not draw attention away from the excellent relationship we enjoy in all other areas.

swissinfo: The German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, will be in Bern in September. Will the ongoing dispute over Zurich airport be a major part of the talks with the Swiss government?

F.E.: It goes without saying that this question will also be on the agenda. But it won’t be the only issue.

swissinfo: There is talk of a possible merger between Lufthansa and Swiss. Is that going to form part of the discussions?

F.E.: That is not a matter for the governments to discuss. Lufthansa and Swiss are two private companies, and it is not the responsibility of governments to interfere in negotiations, if they exist, between those two carriers.

But I have no difficulties in describing Lufthansa as a reliable and very responsible partner when it comes to playing a role in an alliance or a partnership with other carriers.

swissinfo: It was your own personal wish to come to Bern as ambassador. Why?

F.E.: That has a lot to do with my long-time personal relationship with Switzerland. I have already been ambassador to India, Japan and Poland. This is my last posting, I thought it would make sense to spend it in a country which would not only challenge me, but also give me a lot in return.

For me, Switzerland has always been a fascinating country – especially culturally. It started with my discovery of Dürrenmat when I was still a child, and has since developed further with Swiss artists from Valloton, to Amiet and Giacometti.

swissinfo: Is Bern then a posting for diplomats who are about to retire?

F.E.: No, that would be doing Switzerland a disservice. Also my friends and colleagues would start protesting if that were the case. No, in my last posting I wanted to give back something to a country that has always fascinated me.

swissinfo: You have described your function here as being a kind of PR agent. What are you doing for the image of Germany in Switzerland?

F.E.: Of course Germany expects me to project a positive image of the country. I would like to bring the German people and the country closer to the Swiss. The best way to achieve this is to handle relations honestly and openly.

swissinfo-interview: Jonathan Summerton and Gaby Ochsenbein

In brief

Frank Elbe took over as Germany’s ambassador to Switzerland on July 1.

He has previously held diplomatic postings in India, Japan and Poland.

The 62-year-old has been a frequent visitor to Switzerland, spending summer and winter holidays in canton Valais.

In the 1980s he was Germany’s permanent representative to the United Nations disarmament conference in Geneva.

Elbe was born in 1941 in Iserlohn, North Rhine-Westphalia.

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