Getting tough with Swiss banks, angering American expats in Switzerland – two negative issues the United States ambassador to Switzerland is able to spin positively. Looking back on her first year in the job, Suzan G. (Suzi) LeVine focuses on cooperation between the two countries and the good things to come.
“We’ve worked very hard to do two things this past year,” she says during an interview at swissinfo.ch. “Help people focus on the basis of our relationship being great, and being about our economic ties and economic growth, and having a great flow-in of American tourists coming to Switzerland and vice versa . . . and compartmentalising the banking situation. And two is, helping people quantify the situation.”
Seated at a microphone in one of the swissinfo studios, LeVine chooses her words carefully. The topic: US citizens and banking. A multitude of Swiss banks have paid or are facing fines for helping US citizens evade taxes. “Let me give you some numbers here,” says the ambassador.
The Department of Justice has issued approximately $167 billion in fines to banks, she says. Of that, “only 3% have been to Swiss banks. Eighty-five percent have been to American banks.” LeVine clarifies: “This is about American taxpayers. This isn’t actually about Switzerland.”
But American expats in Switzerland see the US government’s search for tax cheats in a different light. Increasing numbers of them have been giving up their US citizenship due to hardships caused by the new FATCA tax reporting requirements for US citizens abroad. Banks, now required to submit extensive information to the US government about their US clients, are closing their doors to American citizens.
LeVine counters that helping American citizens in Switzerland is one of the US embassy’s top priorities. “We’ve been doing a lot to have a dialogue with the Swiss Bankers Association and with major banking institutions here to look at what are some of the ways to alleviate some of the stressors within the banking experience for US-related persons,” she says. “And there are some banks that are coming forward and saying ‘We take Americans!’ And so I think that we’ve made some traction on that. Hopefully more this coming year.”
As for the benefits of being and staying an American, LeVine says there are many. As “technical benefits” she names Social Security, Veterans’ benefits and Medicare and Medicaid. But according to Jackie Bugnion, former Director of American Citizens Abroad, “that’s not quite accurate”, because Social Security is linked to working in the US, not to citizenship, and Medicare and Medicaid services are only provided in the US.
What other benefits are there?
“When you look at what the United States does worldwide, and what we have done in building coalitions, in coming together and being a leader in a number of different ways, that has costs associated with it in terms of what taxes pay for,” says LeVine.
It’s clear that LeVine is less interested in talking about old problems than in focusing on new programmes, such as a bilateral pact on vocational education and training (VET).
Through visits to a variety of Swiss businesses and talking with students she has learned first-hand about the Swiss dual education system. The apprenticeship system “spans many different areas. So whether it is banking, whether it is hospitality, whether it is mechanical engineering, whether it is becoming a hairdresser, becoming a veterinarian, there is a broad array of opportunities,” she says. “It’s a path, not an end.”
Here too, LeVine has facts and figures to back her up. Swiss companies generate about half a million jobs in the United States, and Switzerland is the largest investor in research and development in the US, she says. She sees the VET partnership as a big step in the right direction.
“I think that is huge for both of our countries, and is a big push towards what we call ‘shared prosperity’.”
The ambassador says she has devoted a great deal of time in her first year to talking with young people. In July, standing before a full house of invited guests at the US Embassy’s Independence Day celebration in Bern, LeVine told a story about a group of Swiss high school students she had met. The students, she said, sent her a list of harmless questions in advance of their meeting, then pulled out the tough ones after she arrived.
“I loved loved loved the gravity of their questions and how deeply they felt those questions in their hearts,” she says. “They ranged from ‘What is happening with Guantanamo?’ and ‘What is happening with racism in America?’ [to] ‘What is happening around privacy, and the protection of privacy?’ ”
And there are other serious issues to address. LeVine points to Swiss-US cooperation to combat violent extremism. The two countries are among the early funders of a new Geneva-based organisation called the Global Community Engagement and Resiliency Fundexternal link (GCERF), which supports local initiatives to protect vulnerable groups – often young people – from radicalisation.
For the coming year, she’ll be placing a major focus on “what I’d call a shared value between the United States and Switzerland, of diversity. What can we do in reaching out in LGBT diversity, in religious diversity, in gender diversity?” There are data showing that diversity equals innovation and productivity, LeVine says. “The more diversity that you have, whether it’s in a business environment, an academic university environment, the more creative you can be.”
Bridge builder – and jumper
LeVine sees her role as building bridges between the US and Switzerland, “helping the respective cultures and people understand each other”.
Cultural exchange was the goal of an Art in Embassies programme launched in February, which brought scientists, technologists, environmentalists and artists together from across Switzerland. “These were individuals who aren’t necessarily always in the same place or in the same circles,” she says.
The ambassador keeps a blogexternal link which she uses to help her build bridges, admitting in one post to having jumped off a small one (into Bern’s Aare River). And in honour of Swiss National Day on August 1, LeVine posted a Facebook video of herself playing the alphorn.
She’s also made efforts to reach out to the Swiss by learning German, the language of roughly two-thirds of the population. She says she’s making progress.
And – as is typical for the American diplomat – she’s learning from the experience.