Swiss ministers begin WEF discussions

Pascal Couchepin is among Swiss ministers taking part in the Forum Keystone

Three Swiss ministers are taking part in the World Economic Forum being held for the first time outside the resort of Davos in canton Graubunden. The Forum has moved to New York as a gesture of solidarity with the city.

This content was published on February 1, 2002 - 18:30

More than two thousand participants from the world of business, politics, civil society and religion are meeting at the Waldorf Astoria on Park Avenue. As Swiss President, Mr Villiger officially opened the conference on Thursday evening and paid tribute to the way the city had coped in the aftermath of the September attacks.

He also gave a staunch defence of globalisation but called for increased dialogue with those unconvinced of its benefits.

The welcoming message over, Mr Villiger, who is also finance minister joined the economics minister, Pascal Couchepin at a buffet reception hosted by Switzerland.

The foreign minister, Joseph Deiss, will join his colleagues in New York at the weekend. All have a full schedule of meetings.

These will include talks with the French finance minister, Laurent Fabius, the Romanian prime minister Andre Nastase and the American commerce secretary Dick Evans.

At a debate organised by the US-Swiss joint economic commission, ministers will also debate the threat posed by bio-terrorism which has become a topical issue after the US anthrax attacks.

Economic slump

The global economic slowdown is near the top of everybody's agenda here in New York, with most participants feeling optimistic about the prospects for a US recovery this year.

Mr Couchepin is also upbeat about the prospects for Switzerland though he concedes things may get worse before they get better.

"I'm convinced there will be no recession," he says, "there may be one quarter of negative growth but not two. But the slowdown will continue until the summer when we should see a recovery."

Anti-terrorism campaign

The choice of New York as the location for this year's meeting has also focused minds on the fight against terrorism. The US response to the attacks is not limited to military action and the authorities have been trying to cut off funding to suspect groups.

In Switzerland, voices have been raised against proposed US legislation to stifle terrorist funding. The Swiss Private Bankers' Association recently expressed its reservations about a list of terror organisations being drawn up for circulation to banks. The Association says the list is bound to contain errors and is open to interpretation.

For their part, the Americans say Europe must not be seen to drag its feet in the war against terrorism.

"At the beginning, there was some criticism from the American side but now they are convinced that our system can answer all the needs of the struggle against terror," says Couchepin.

"The new steps could be criticised by us but as long as they are not taken, they are the subject of discussion when we meet with the US authorities."

Mr Villiger is taking part in a plenary discussion on Saturday where he will give a robust defence of Switzerland's position against money laundering and look at the political and economic obstacles to effectively combating the terror threat. Laurent Fabius will join him on the panel as well as the secretary-general of Interpol, Ronald Noble and the secretary-general of the OECD, Donald Johnston.

Mr Couchepin will also be in action in the plenary hall, looking at ways to revive interest in democracy in industrialised countries and how to encourage it in the developing world.

Homecoming

Swiss ministers here are also keen to see the Forum make a permanent return to its home in Davos. Although the WEF is already committed to coming back next year its long-term future in Switzerland looks in doubt.

At the opening speeches on Thursday, the new Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg said he hoped the Forum would return to the city and said Switzerland should be left to the skiers.

Mr Couchepin will only say that he hopes the Forum will be back to stay.

"As New York has found out, it is not so easy to organise for the Forum, Davos is used to hosting WEF."

Anti-globalisation demonstrations

As demonstrators continue to voice their opposition to globalisation in New York, protesters in Zurich also took to the streets.

More than 500 people congregated in the centre of the Swiss city on Friday evening, demanding dialogue with authorities on issues such as police brutality.

Police used tear gas to disperse angry crowds who vandalised a bank and the Town Hall (Rathaus). Several arrests were made and one policeman was injured.

Some 120 protesters were arrested in Zurich last year when they demonstrated against the WEF which was taking place in Davos.

by Michael Hollingdale, New York

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