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Papers mull departure of "headstrong" minister

Foreign Minister Calmy-Rey tells the media she will not stand for re-election in December

(Keystone)

The decision by Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey to step down at the end of the year makes the headlines in all of Thursday’s Swiss papers.

And the assessments of her and her performance are divided – perhaps unsurprisingly given what the German-language Neue Zürcher Zeitung calls her “polarising personality”.

On the one hand, many note her achievements in making Swiss foreign policy more visible in the world.

The French-language Le Temps recalls how when she took up office she said she wanted to conduct “public diplomacy” leading to consensus over foreign policy.

“The consensus is far from being reached. But at least Switzerland exists on the international scene,” the paper comments. 

The Berner Zeitung says she freed diplomacy “from the closed backrooms, and sometimes spoke undiplomatically plain language” – and that this made her deservedly popular.

The Neue Zürcher Zeitung notes that many on the right and centre-right were not too happy about her moves to bring foreign policy into the limelight.

“But her conviction that Switzerland could only exercise and defend its interests by increasing its international presence is now widely shared,” it maintains.

Success and failure

Her mediation between Turkey and Armenia, and between Russia and Georgia is widely praised,  but her policies in the Middle East are seen as less successful.

The Geneva Initiative, launched in 2003 as an attempt to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians, is described by the French-language La Liberté as making a splash but soon being forgotten. The Berner Zeitung says she tried to “go it alone” in pushing Israel towards peace without discussing it with her cabinet colleagues “and failed dismally”.

But Le Temps sees it differently.

“Micheline Calmy-Rey had the courage to support undertakings to which cautious Switzerland was not used. In the Middle East, in particular in discussions between Syria and Israel, her support for the Geneva initiative despite Israeli hostility, and also dialogue with the Palestinian Hamas,” it says.

The papers generally agree on one low point: her controversial appearance in Tehran in 2008 when she wore a headscarf at her meeting with President Ahmedinejad.

Her handling of the hostage crisis with Libya was also controversial; several papers attribute her difficulties there to her lack of team spirit and failure to communicate with her cabinet colleagues.

The Tages-Anzeiger points out that her colleagues failed to support her when apparent plans for a military intervention to rescue the hostages were revealed – and says that was symptomatic of the “deep mistrust” that reigned in the cabinet, where she was often isolated.

Europe

The verdict is open on her European policy.

“So far Micheline Calmy-Rey’s European policy has on the whole been successful,” says Le Temps. “She has managed to get the people to accept the bilateral agreements, despite the rise of euroscepticism and the nationalistic right.”

But the paper goes on to quote an “observer” in Brussels who says she was finding it tough to negotiate agreements on access to the European market.

La Liberté, on the other hand, calls her attitude to the European Union “harmful”.

“She certainly did a lot of work to advance along the path of bilateral accords, but without creating any real prospects nor taking steps to ensure Switzerland’s influence on its big neighbour and leading partner,” it says.

Headstrong personality

On the whole the papers are not kind regarding the minister’s personality.  “Headstrong” is a word that comes up several times.

“For better or worse, her ego and her tendency to go it alone have been features of nine years of Swiss foreign policy,” says La Liberté. It quotes a former ambassador summarising her character: “Authoritarianism, impressive work capacity, and ‘an astonishing ability to resist… good advice’.”

The Tages-Anzeiger sums up her career in an article entitled “The headstrong patriot”, and says she “made Swiss foreign policy a talking point – and thereby herself as well”.

There are two ways of seeing her personality, as the Neue Zürcher Zeitung points out. It says she had a tendency to respond icily to criticism in parliament.

“With this attitude, which can also be interpreted as arrogance, not surprisingly she didn’t only make friends. But the fact that she stuck to her opinion even in adverse circumstances shows her resolution and backbone – qualities we expect in a good minister.”

A similar point is made by the Tages-Anzeiger. “Micheline Calmy-Rey made a lot of opponents, which is also an indication of strength,” it comments.

Stateswoman

The German-language tabloid Blick is generous in its editorial.

“She stood for a Switzerland full of self-confident solidarity with the world community. At first she was ridiculed for it, and then more and more stubbornly persecuted by those for whom everything foreign is an enemy.”

“In Micheline Calmy-Rey a stateswoman is leaving the government. The country will miss her,” concludes Blick.

The Berner Zeitung wonders who will succeed her.

“We need another personality who is able to scandalise people and be provocative. Otherwise the government will look even more like a feel-good committee than it does now,” it says.

Micheline Calmy-Rey

1945: Born in canton Valais where she lived until the age of 19. 

1968: graduated in political science from Geneva University.

1974: joined the Geneva Social Democratic Party and worked until 1997 managing the family book distribution business.

1981–97: member of the Geneva cantonal parliament.

 

1986–90 and 93–97: president of the Geneva Social Democratic Party.

1997–2002: member of the Geneva cantonal government. 

2003–11: Swiss foreign minister.

2007 and 2011: held the annually rotating Swiss presidency.

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SUCCESS WITH THE VOTERS

Micheline Calmy-Rey has been on the winning side of all referendum votes on foreign policy held during the nine years she has been minister of foreign affairs:

June 5, 2005: the people approves with a 54.6% majority the proposal that Switzerland sign up to the Schengen/Dublin accords.

September 25, 2005: 56% of voters say yes to the extension of the agreement on the free movement of people to the ten new member states of the European Union.

November 26, 2006: a contribution of SFr1 billion, intended to foster development and democratisation of eastern European states, is approved by 53.4% of voters.

February 8, 2009: 59.6% of citizens are in favour of the extension of the agreement on the free movement of people to Bulgaria and Romania.

May 17, 2009: the introduction of the biometric passport, in keeping with the standards required by the Schengen agreement, is supported by 50.1% of voters. 

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