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Calmy-Rey re-ignites EU debate

Calmy-Rey has not been afraid to speak her mind

The Swiss foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, says the government should start discussing EU membership after October's parliamentary elections.

Calmy-Rey says the cabinet should decide whether to open talks during the next four years of parliament.

“Bilateral agreements are one way of achieving closer integration, and at the moment they serve our purpose,” she said.

“We must let them run their course and then, during the next parliament, the government has to decide whether or not we start negotiations for joining the EU,” she added.

“[EU enlargement] will make it more and more difficult for Switzerland to defend its interests.”

New to the job

The comments came as Calmy-Rey, who supports Swiss membership of the EU, marked the first three months in her new job.

In that time, the Social Democrat, who was elected to the cabinet last December, has come under fire for her outspoken and forthright approach.

In February, the right-wing Swiss People’s Party accused Calmy-Rey of being more interested in promoting herself than achieving concrete results, after she announced a pre-war conference on Iraq without consulting her cabinet colleagues.

And earlier this month the centre-right Radical Party claimed she was “electioneering” by trying to garner popular support when she announced plans to publish a list of civilian casualties of the war in Iraq.

Calmy-Rey was subsequently forced to abandon those plans because of the difficulties in finding reliable sources of information.


But Calmy-Rey appears to be learning from the “mistakes” that have characterised her first three months in the job, according to political analyst Hans Hirter.

He says the foreign minister is starting to realise that she cannot risk cutting herself off from the other members of the seven-strong government, and her comments on EU membership reflect the thinking of most of the rest of the cabinet.

“If she had criticised the bilaterals and called for an immediate membership of the EU, she would have been out of step with cabinet thinking,” he said.

“But if you ask any other member of the government, they will probably say much the same thing.”

Collegiality is a vital part of government in Switzerland.

Cabinet decisions are made on a majority basis and the Social Democrats, as the only left-of-centre party in government, often have to build alliances with the centre-right Radicals or Christian Democrats to push through policy decisions.

Team player

Hirter says Calmy-Rey has to prove that she can be a team player.

“If she isolates herself, she will not be able to form alliances on policies that really matter to her,” he said.

“She would be no use to herself or to the Social Democrats,” he added.

A test of Calmy-Rey’s willingness to be a team player and build alliances within the cabinet, says Hirter, came at last week’s lifting of the ban on weapons exports to countries involved in the war in Iraq.

“She clearly demonstrated that by just reading the government’s statement without making any comment,” he said.


Hirter says although Calmy-Rey has made what many would consider mistakes in her first three months in office, she has to learn the importance of finding common ground with her fellow ministers.

Hirter also casts doubt how far Calmy-Rey can pursue her declared policy of “transparent diplomacy” – a break from Switzerland’s traditional way of conducting diplomacy behind closed doors.

He also questions the impact she has had on Swiss foreign policy.

“It shows how little experience the Swiss have in [real] foreign policy,” he said.

“Even though we have recently joined the United Nations, it wasn’t as though the world was ‘waiting’ for us.

“Switzerland is only a small country and the most it can offer is its ‘good offices’,” he added.

Foreign policy

Although Hirter contends that Calmy-Rey has had little effect on lifting the profile of Swiss foreign policy abroad, he says she has raised the level of awareness of the foreign ministry among the Swiss.

“Especially during the war in Iraq, she expressed what a majority of the population thought rather than what most of her cabinet colleagues believed,” he said.

Hirter admits that Calmy-Rey appears to have caught the public’s imagination, but he warns that she cannot continue to make political errors.

“Her problems so far have come from not consulting her cabinet colleagues and not listening to people in her department with many years of experience,” he said

“That is more or less acceptable at the moment, but not in the long run.”

swissinfo, Jonathan Summerton

Calmy Rey was elected to the cabinet in December last year.
She took over from Joseph Deiss as foreign minister on January 1, 2003.
She was in charge of Geneva’s finances from 1997 until her election to the cabinet.
She is only the fourth woman in Swiss history to have a seat in the cabinet.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR