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Switzerland portrayed as EU’s saviour

Calmy-Rey met the head of the European Foreign Affairs Committee Gabriele Albertini in Brussels Keystone

Could Switzerland’s growing network of bilateral tax agreements represent part of the solution to the European Union euro crisis? The Swiss foreign minister thinks so.

This content was published on October 12, 2011 - 13:52
Tanguy Verhoosel in Brussels, swissinfo.ch

During her farewell visit to Brussels, Micheline Calmy-Rey made more rallying, or at least less provocative, speeches than usual.

The veteran politician, who will retire from government and politics at the end of the year, was invited by the foreign affairs committee of the European parliament to speak about the partnership between Switzerland and the EU on Tuesday before attending a big “Swiss soirée” in a very trendy nightclub in the Belgian capital.

Switzerland is a “supportive partner” of the EU, she told the European deputies, pointing out that Bern contributed financially to the reduction of economic and social disparity in the union, constructs routes across the Alps and takes part in peace missions in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Calmy-Rey also noted that Switzerland played a role in the stabilisation of the economic situation in Europe, through the International Monetary Fund and the Swiss National Bank. And this role could grow, thanks to “Rubik”, the name given to the bilateral tax agreements concluded in August by Switzerland with Germany and Britain.

“European parliamentarians began to look towards Switzerland as part of the solution [to this crisis] as soon a withholding tax [taken by Swiss banks from the income made on capital in non-resident accounts] made it possible to transfer some money to countries in difficulty. Not as part of the problem.”

In short, Switzerland could quickly meet the demands of beleaguered Greece  – the country is suffering a haemorrhage of capital, estimated by some at €200 billion (SFr247 billion) – to open tax negotiations with Bern in the hope of boosting state coffers. Exploratory discussions are already under way with Athens, which could also give ideas to France, or even Italy.

Negotiations

Other equally sensitive negotiations are appearing on the horizon. The EU wishes to give its relations with Switzerland an institutional dimension which they do not currently have.

For Brussels, it’s particularly about creating mechanisms which would allow the innumerable sector-specific bilateral accords made with Bern to be adapted to developments in European legislation and to more efficiently monitor the way in which they are applied by Switzerland.

Calmy-Rey called on her partners to display “positive sobriety” in this context. And she made it crystal clear.

The minister has earned the nickname “Madame bilaterals” and is seen as the standard bearer of the EU integration strategy of Switzerland, a country which obstinately refuses to join the union. Calmy-Rey certainly recognises that Bern also has a major interest in clarifying the rules of the game, but not at any price.

It would be out of the question, she said, to tamper with the country’s sovereignty by automatically adapting its legislation to developments in EU regulations.

She also ruled out giving priority to those institutional questions. As long as Switzerland wants to conclude new accords with the EU on agriculture, electricity and market access for pharmaceutical products a “global and coordinated approach” must be followed.

Attack

The Europeans have been duly warned. But they are not alone: Calmy-Rey, who appears visibly liberated from a certain duty to hold back, made a stinging attack on the rightwing Swiss People’s Party, two weeks before the federal elections of October 23.

The People’s Party wants to renegotiate the agreement Switzerland made with the EU on the free movement of people, to reduce the number of foreigners in the country.

To call into question this agreement which benefits the economy “is the most stupid thing that one could say”, said the minister.

Switzerland and Europe

1992: Swiss government decided to apply for negotiations on EU membership. The application remains 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. 

Switzerland and the EU have concluded 20 major bilateral agreements and about 100 secondary bilateral agreements since 1972 when voters approved an Efta accord with Brussels on a free trade zone.

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Calmy-Rey and Europe

Micheline Calmy-Rey “won” all the federal votes related to European policy during her nine years spent at the head of the Swiss foreign ministry.

June 5, 2005: the people approve by 54.6 % Switzerland’s signing up to the Schengen and Dublin accords.

September 25, 2005: 56% per cent of voters accept the extension of the free movement of people agreement to the 10 new member states of the EU.

November 26, 2006: A contribution of SFr1 billion to be spent on supporting the economic development and democratisation of eastern European states is accepted by 53.4% of the electorate.

February 8, 2009: 59.6% of voters agree to the extension of the free movement of people to the citizens of Bulgaria and Romania.

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