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New foreign minister braces for EU headache

Didier Burkhalter and previous foreign minister Micheline Calmy-Rey Keystone

All political eyes are on Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter from the centre-right Radical Party as he takes up his position and the many accompanying challenges.

After nine years of Micheline Calmy-Rey, a member of the centre-left Social Democrats, the centre-right parties are eager for a change in style and substance. Top of the agenda is the European Union.

Relations with the country’s main trading partner are fraught and opinions on how to deal with the EU differ wildly: the left is looking for closer harmony and “proactive trading”, while those on the right want to see greater steadfastness and more stability.

“If we do not deal [with the EU] proactively, our room to negotiate will become much smaller,” Social Democrat parliamentarian Carlo Sommaruga told

“The EU will soon come with its demands for an institutional agreement and a tax deal. Personally, I think we will have to conclude a global institutional agreement with the EU.”

Sommaruga’s centre-right colleagues in the parliamentary foreign policy committee disagree.

“We shouldn’t be too hasty in obediently implementing the EU’s wishes. I expect Minister Burkhalter to stand firm against this pressure,” said Pirmin Bischof of the Christian Democrats.

According to Christoph Mörgeli of the rightwing and Eurosceptic Swiss People’s Party, “the big question is how the pressure develops from Brussels to automatically accept new laws and to recognise common judges, when we’re essentially talking about Brussels judges”.

“This is the challenge for the new foreign minister,” he said.

Squaring a circle

For years, Bern and the Brussels have been at loggerheads because of the preferential tax treatment given to foreign holding companies in certain Swiss cantons. The EU now wants the bilateral agreements already in force with Switzerland to operate on a more dynamic basis.

In concrete terms, this means the agreements would be regularly adapted to incorporate changes in EU law. If the EU got its way, the agreements would be subject to the jurisdiction of an appointed court.

Mörgeli doubts that Burkhalter will put up massive resistance to the EU’s demands. “Burkhalter was always known as a Euro Turbo,” he said.

Parliamentarian Christa Markwalder said on the task facing her fellow Radical involved “squaring a circle”.

“Switzerland does not want any automatic mechanism yet at the same time wants to be part of the single European market,” she said.

“Switzerland has a huge interest in the single market and must face up to the current demands. A new foreign minister can also undo Gordian knots that we have built up in recent years with the EU.”


Since January 1, the foreign ministry has been in the hands of a Radical for the first time in half a century.

Bischof is hoping for a kind of “course correction, where we will be absolutely allowed to stand up for our own interests. It is important in itself that Switzerland places an emphasis on human rights, which have been propagated worldwide, and the humanitarian tradition. But foreign politics is also the politics of interest. I also expect a bit more economic confidence from the change.”

Mörgeli hopes Burkhalter will bring “a more systematic approach” to foreign policy.

“This was unfortunately lost under the previous foreign minister. We saw a transition from a policy of example to a policy of pointing the finger. We began to hand out red and yellow cards and to reprimand and criticise other countries. That does not win us any friends – on the contrary, we have made enemies for the first time in the world.”

UN effect

Stylewise Mörgeli said he would definitely prefer “a more discrete foreign policy”.

“This ‘storm of flashlights’ policy is not beneficial to us. Switzerland has always been successful when it has taken the servants’ entrance with other states,” he said.

According to Sommaruga, “the change of style in Swiss foreign policy is linked to the fact that Switzerland became a member of the United Nations shortly before Calmy-Rey took office”.

“Therefore her foreign policy was characterised by the defence of values like democracy, human rights and the fight against poverty. The representation of economic interests became somewhat less important.”

Create alliances

The Social Democratic Party hopes this won’t change under a centre-right foreign minister.

“We’re going to follow this question closely, but it could also be an opportunity, if Burkhalter manages to convince the centre-right camp of the path followed up to now,” Sommaruga said.

Markwalder said development and cooperation work was an “important core area for Switzerland with its humanitarian tradition”.

“I would turn our attention to the discussion about bilateral versus multilateral development assistance.”

She added that of course it was nice whenever the world saw a Swiss-built school or hospital, but the multilateral way was just as important, for example participation in the World Bank.

“In this area, Switzerland has the possibility to show that it is a partner in solidarity. In this way we can create alliances that will be politically helpful in other ways.”

The foreign ministry formulates and coordinates Swiss foreign policy on the instructions of the cabinet. A coherent foreign policy is a precondition for the effective protection of Swiss interests vis-à-vis foreign countries. 

The activity of the ministry is based on the five foreign-policy objectives defined in the federal constitution:

– peaceful coexistence among peoples

– respect for human rights and the promotion of democracy

– safeguarding the interests of the Swiss economy abroad

– relieving need and poverty in the world

– preserving the natural environment.

(source: foreign ministry)

(Translated from German by Clare O’Dea)

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