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Building bridges between Bern and Brussels

Michael Reiterer says there is prejudice against the EU in Switzerland Ex-press

The European Union’s first ambassador to Switzerland, Michael Reiterer, is leaving his post after nearly five years working to “build bridges“ between Brussels and Bern.

Reiterer, an Austrian national, tells that the only thing that annoyed him in Switzerland was always hearing the same prejudices against the EU.

The EU diplomat made it his business not only to speak to politicians right across the spectrum, but also to go out and meet ordinary Swiss voters.

He gained a reputation for being affable in manner but tough when it came down to business. You have built up the EU mission from scratch, and made it a real presence in Bern. Other than that, what was your greatest achievement?

Michael Reiterer: I have worked hard to build a bridge between Switzerland and the European Union. The aim was to explain to Brussels what is different about Switzerland, and conversely to adapt the language of Brussels to Swiss circumstances.

I’ve cultivated contacts with Swiss civil society – associations, chambers of commerce, universities and schools. Every year I’ve attended between 50 and 70 events. I found that really interesting, because it gave me an idea of what people really think, so I didn’t just hear about it from colleagues in the administration. But not a lot has actually been achieved. There have hardly been any new agreements signed during your time in Bern, and relations have got bogged down.

M.R.: No, I don’t agree. On the one hand relations have been stepped up during my time here. The chairmen of the three main EU institutions – the Council of Ministers, the Commission and the Parliament – have all visited Switzerland … But these visits didn’t bring the two sides any closer.

M.R.: Even with closer contacts you won’t automatically overcome differences of interest, but they do help to create a better basis for finding solutions. And after all, negotiations are now underway about agricultural free trade and electricity – but institutional problems also require an answer. How will Switzerland adopt the next stages of the EU law on the internal market? 

Given that Switzerland wants to participate in some sectors of the internal market , how can we ensure that the rules are applied in Switzerland in exactly the same way as in the European Union? How will decisions of the European Court of Justice be adopted in Switzerland, and how can we overcome differences of opinion?

All these things need answers; we can’t shy away from the problems of the bilateral agreements. Now that the Swiss elections are behind us, I hope we’ll be able to get down to business properly. The Swiss side is hoping for the same thing, but is stressing that there are things Brussels wants, in particular in the area of taxes… So the Swiss administration wants a pragmatic comprehensive solution, with give and take on both sides.

M.R.: Even pragmatic solutions must be solutions of the problem. After all, we’ve got the experience of the over 100 agreements covering Switzerland’s participation in the EU internal market. But the problems you have mentioned arise when it comes to implementing them. And now these questions have cropped up again in the individual negotiations on new dossiers. So it is in the interest of both sides that we should find a solution. The most important agreement for ordinary Swiss is probably quite a different one: the free movement of persons. Even when economic growth is declining, people don’t stop moving to Switzerland. The Swiss talk about a one-way street.

M.R: The free movement of persons is one of the basic pillars of the European internal market and has been accepted by Swiss voters several times under the system of direct democracy. I believe the majority of them know that European Union citizens are making a significant contribution, for example in health care and at the universities.

And it is not a one-way street. For example, there are more Swiss living in France than there are French living in Switzerland. Nevertheless, the Swiss administration is seriously considering limiting immigration again.

M.R.: The “safety valve” clause included in the treaty provided for a transitional period during which [EU] immigration can once again be limited, if it has exceeded a certain threshold in the previous years. This transitional period still applies to the “new” EU members, but no longer, for example, to Germans, Spaniards, Portuguese and Italians… …who are the most likely to come to Switzerland because of the euro crisis.

M.R.: Not too fast: that’s a debt problem affecting some EU states, which has consequences for the euro. But that’s not going to make more people move to Switzerland. Those who can come to Switzerland under the free movement of persons are people who have a job, in other words, those whom the economy can make use of.

The situation in Switzerland is what it is. And Switzerland is also affected by the consequences of the debt crisis – just think of the franc exchange rate.

swissinfo: Even so, in your opinion, why is Switzerland better positioned?

M.R.: Switzerland is very well positioned economically. I’m very happy to pay it this compliment.  For example, it has already had for quite some time the debt limit that the EU now wants to introduce.

The European Union is made up of a wide range of states. You have the powerful economic engine of Germany, which Switzerland greatly depends on, but you also have smaller countries and countries that are in crisis.

This is indeed a challenge. But I think that’s something you in Switzerland have no trouble in understanding. There is also a large difference in the economies of canton Zurich and the Jura, but they still work together.

The Swiss government decided in 1992 to apply for negotiations on EU membership. The application is currently shelved.
The government’s 2006 report on European integration stated that the Swiss policy is based on bilateral treaties. 
In August 2010 the government published a report on the country’s European integration policy, which declared that bilateral accords were still the best way to work with the EU, despite increasing difficulties. 

It has concluded 20 major bilateral agreements with the bloc.
There are also about 100 secondary bilateral accords between Bern and Brussels.
Bilateral treaty I
(1999) focused on opening up markets, the free movement of persons, technical barriers to trade, public markets, agriculture, air, road and rail transport and Swiss participation in EU research programmes.
Bilateral treaty II
(2004) covered new economic interests and extended to cooperation and political questions (internal security, asylum, environment and culture), the Schengen/Dublin Accords, savings tax, processed agricultural products, media, environment, statistics, fraud, pensions, education and professional training.
Negotiations are underway to update existing accords (the free movement of persons, technical barriers to trade, public markets, air transport, processed agricultural products,) There are plans to adapt the accords on savings tax and fraud.
New talks were launched in 2007 for electricity, agriculture, health, consumer protection issues, food chain and product safety, chemical product safety and company taxation.
The list should extend to other areas such as satellite navigation, cooperation on competition law, supervision of financial markets and access to the market of financial intermediaries.

Reiterer  was born in Innsbruck, Austria in 1954.

He first studied Law in Innsbruck, and also holds postgraduate diplomas in international relations.

He has served in economic missions of the Austrian diplomatic service.

He joined the diplomatic service of the EU in 2002, serving in Japan.

He became the EU’s first ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein in 2007.

His successor in Bern will be Richard Jones, who is a British citizen.

(Translated from German by Julia Slater)

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR