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Roots of American patriotism lead to Geneva

Xavier Comtesse says Switzerland would benefit from American know-how

(Keystone)

Geneva is once again hosting on Monday the biggest Independence Day celebrations outside the United States.

This year is special, says Switzerland’s former consul in Boston, Xavier Comtesse, as Bern prepares for an even closer relationship with Washington.

For more than 50 years, Geneva’s American International Club has organised the July 4 celebrations in the city. Over time, the festivities have attracted tens of thousands of spectators, far more than the local US community.

But this year the party takes on a special significance, with the Swiss government’s recent decision to seek closer ties with the United States, in particular a free-trade agreement.

For Xavier Comtesse, who worked in Washington and Boston for seven years, getting closer to the Americans makes perfect sense. The former consul, who set up the Swiss House in Boston, is director of the Avenir Suisse think tank for western Switzerland.

swissinfo: Are you surprised that Geneva hosts the biggest July 4 celebrations outside the United States?

Xavier Comtesse: Not really. Geneva is the Protestant Rome and Protestantism has a deep influence on American culture. Many Americans feel a particular kinship with Geneva and consider it a source of many of their principles.

swissinfo: America’s image has suffered in Switzerland recently though.

X.C.: The dormant accounts affair was certainly the first time the relationship really suffered. The war in Iraq, which was opposed by many Swiss, did nothing to improve people’s impressions of America.

Even so, the two countries still have a lot in common, including their constitutions and their federalist political structures.

swissinfo: Switzerland has decided to get closer to the United States and wants a free-trade agreement. What can the Swiss expect from this type of accord?

X.C.: In 2003, Switzerland became the sixth biggest investor in the US with $113 billion (SFr146.6 billion), ahead of Canada. The Americans are the biggest investors ($86 billion) in Switzerland, which is the fourth most favoured destination for US investments.

The US is also one of our biggest trade partners. Around 8,000 Swiss scientists also carry out research there and in total 80,000 Swiss live in America.

swissinfo: Which economic sectors have the most to gain from a trade agreement?

X.C.: High technology is the most likely since there are already long-standing and important exchanges. This relationship has gotten stronger in recent years, as Novartis’ decision to set its research headquarters in Boston shows.

swissinfo: From a business point of view, how do the Americans consider Switzerland?

X.C.: Switzerland is a bridgehead towards the rest of Europe. In the past ten years, many American companies have set up their European headquarters here.

swissinfo: Is the fact that Switzerland is not a member of the European Union a problem?

X.C.: The bilateral accords between Switzerland and the EU mean that Swiss participation in the European Economic Area, rejected by Swiss voters in 1992, is almost reality.

Switzerland is not part of the European Union’s political project, but from the American point of view, there is no difference between the Swiss and the rest of Europe when doing business.

swissinfo: How can the successful American entrepreneurial spirit be reproduced in Switzerland?

X.C.: We have to encourage the Swiss studying and working in the United States to come home. They are prime candidates to set up new companies in Switzerland.

We have to remember that 80 per cent of research grants from the National Science Foundation for scientists heading abroad go to people headed for the United States. Getting these scientists home was one of the aims of the Swiss House, our science consulate in Boston which I ran from 1999 to 2001.

swissinfo: What is needed to foster entrepreneurial spirit in Switzerland and what can closer ties with the US do to help this?

X.C.: Switzerland is an extremely innovative country, but there is a lack of desire to turn inventions into commercial success. This is what we have to learn from the Americans.

In the past ten years, plenty of start-up companies have been launched in Switzerland, but their owners don’t seem to want to go out and conquer the world or find a niche market for their products.

Despite this, there are innovative Swiss companies such as Logitech and Visiowave that have succeeded.

swissinfo: But there is a dearth of investors and capital that could help entrepreneurs get a leg up...

X.C.: That is why we need the Americans, so they can invest in Swiss projects. A free-trade agreement with the United States would help bring the know-how of American business angels to Switzerland.

swissinfo-interview: Frédéric Burnand in Geneva

Key facts

Consular relations were first established between Switzerland and the United States in 1820.
Formal diplomatic relations came about in 1853.
More than one million American citizens can trace their roots back to Switzerland.
There are over 13,000 Americans living in Switzerland, more than 70,000 Swiss residing in the US.

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In brief

Six hundred Swiss companies work in the United States, employing 500,000 people and investing over $4 billion in research and development.

More than 650 American companies have Swiss affiliates, and many of them have established headquarters in Switzerland.

Trade between the two countries exceeded $20 billion for the first time in 2002.

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