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Swiss inch towards closer India ties

Calmy-Rey (centre) met Indian counterpart Pratibha Devisingh Patil (right) and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh

(Keystone)

Switzerland is "satisfied" with progress in strengthening ties with India despite failing to lay formal procedural foundations, says President Micheline Calmy-Rey.

Swiss experts must better identify areas of common interest before privileged partnership discussions can resume, Calmy-Rey said at the end of her state visit to India on Wednesday.

She hopes this step will be completed next year during the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Friendship Agreement with India. Switzerland will have to wait until then before India will consider signing a memorandum of understanding formalising the intentions of the two countries.

But Calmy-Rey, who is also the Swiss foreign minister, insisted that there was still a "common will" on both sides to seal a deal that would strengthen bilateral ties in such fields as the economy, environment, science, technology, research and tourism.

"India is becoming a great power and that is why we see the opportunity to strengthen and develop our bilateral relations," she told swissinfo in the Indian capital of New Delhi. "We will have an experts meeting to see what our common priorities are in developing [these] relations."

The purpose of a privileged partnership is to bring more structure to political dialogue and for both countries to come together for regular meetings. In addition, Calmy-Rey wants to better coordinate the various government departments in their dealings with India.

"It is very important that Switzerland does not speak with two or three voices to such a big partner like India," she told swissinfo after meeting Indian President Pratibha Devisingh Patil and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. She also met Indian Congress President Sonia Gandhi.

Free trade

The shift towards institutionalising bilateral relations with India follows similar measures undertaken with the United States, China and Russia since 2005.

Calmy-Rey also emphasised the importance of Free Trade Agreement talks currently taking place between India and the Efta states Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.

Economics Minister Doris Leuthard visited New Delhi in August to lay the groundwork ahead of further negotiations in Geneva next month.

Trade volume between the two countries reached SFr2.5 billion ($2.21 billion) last year but India is still only Switzerland's fourth largest trade partner in Asia.

"This is why, in spite of what we have achieved so far, we still have to improve the framework conditions. One of them is the future Free Trade Agreement that we hope to start negotiating at the end of this year," Calmy-Rey said.

Changing relationship

Large Swiss companies such as Holcim and Novartis are well established in India but Calmy-Rey is keen to push Swiss small and medium-sized enterprises into the market.

Her trip marked an important step in the changing relationship between the two countries. Switzerland has contributed more than SFr1 billion in aid development programmes in India in the past 50 years, but now seeks a partnership of equals.

"Our countries have a lot in common – India is the biggest democracy in the world while Switzerland is the oldest one. I think this privileged partnership would be beneficial for both of us," Calmy-Rey said.

swissinfo, Matthew Allen in New Delhi

Key facts

India boasts a population of more than a billion people with an annual growth rate of 1.7% since 1990.
Its gross domestic product (GDP) breached $1 trillion (SFr1.15 trillion) for the first time this year, growing at more than 9% over the past two years. But in a land of stark economic and social contrasts 80% of people live on less than $2 a day.
At the end of 2006, 707 Swiss were living in India with 6,984 Indians in Switzerland.
Switzerland was the first country to sign a Friendship and Settlement Treaty with the newly independent India in 1948.

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India visit

Swiss President and Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey was given a ceremonial reception at the Presidential Palace, Rashtrapati Bhavan, on Wednesday morning where she was greeted by Indian President Pratibha Devisingh Patil and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

She then laid a wreath at the Rajghat memorial of Mahatma Gandhi before embarking on a series of official talks.

On Tuesday Calmy-Rey visited the famous Taj Mahal temple after spending time at a Swiss Agency for Cooperation and Development (SDC) aided micro-credit facility in Hyderabad.

She also signed a memorandum of understanding for Switzerland to cooperate with Hyderabad's CII Green Business Centre, an organisation that researches environmental efficiency in the corporate sector.

On Monday she visited the SDC offices in New Delhi where she met Swiss solar taxi driver Louis Palmer on his round the world trip to raise awareness of global warming.

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