Switzerland and Italy have had an often tense relationship in recent years stoked by disagreements over tax amnesties, judicial cooperation and a major electricity blackout.
In an interview with swissinfo, Alexis Lautenberg, the Swiss ambassador to Rome, looks back on an eventful five years in the Italian capital.
Lautenberg, who from 1993-1999 conducted the government’s difficult negotiations with the European Union, is being transferred to London.
His five-year stay in Rome coincided with a number of spats between the two neighbours that have tested relations to the full.
A tax amnesty announced in November 2001 to encourage Italians to repatriate money deposited abroad drew the ire of the then economics minister, Pascal Couchepin.
Restrictions on traffic movement through the Gotthard tunnel, following a fatal fire in October 2001, also soured cross-border ties.
Relations dimmed even further when Italy blamed Switzerland for a blackout in September last year which left most of the country without electricity for several hours.
swissinfo: During your tour of duty in Rome, relations between Switzerland and Italy have been somewhat stormy. How would you describe the current state of play between the two countries?
Alexis Lautenberg: First of all, I would say that Italy and Switzerland are bound by an absolutely extraordinary web of relationships. This enables the two countries to cope with even the most complicated issues as and when they arise. Relations between the two countries are excellent and, in the final analysis, it is this excellent relationship that has enabled them to resolve these difficult and sensitive matters without collateral damage in other sectors.
swissinfo: In your opinion, how is Italy viewed in Bern? Some people say that the Swiss government does not take Italy very seriously, in contrast with some of our other European partners…
A.L.: I would completely refute that perception. Italy is one of our principal neighbours, a country with which we share a culture and a language, and with which we have the closest possible relations. And let us not forget that Italy, as a neighbour, is a key partner whenever any problem arises with the European Union
swissinfo: In March 2003, Switzerland ratified an agreement on judicial cooperation with Italy. There had been fears that the Berlusconi government was out to water down the initial spirit of the agreement. What is your assessment?
A.L.: In relations between states, opinions on how best to resolve a problem often differ. In this particular case, the Swiss government chose to wait for the Italian Constitutional Court to adopt a position, before ratifying the agreement. We can at least say that both parties have done their utmost to resolve the issue.
swissinfo: In 2002 the then Italian finance minister Giulio Tremonti trumpeted the end of Swiss banking secrecy. After two tax amnesties and the departure of Tremonti, can we expect further developments?
A.L.: Minister Tremonti’s decrees were part of an attempt to launch a new economic policy for Italy. The first decree resulted in a large volume of funds being repatriated. The Swiss banking system, particularly the part of it that has most dealings with Italy, learned a number of lessons from this experience. Evidence of this is the establishment and strengthening of the position of many Swiss banks in Italy.
swissinfo: Last year was also marked by September’s power cut which blacked out much of Italy and gave rise to new tensions. What lessons have been learned from this episode?
A.L.: I would say that the events of September 28, 2003, have had profound consequences. This was probably one of the most testing moments for our relationship. France has had to acknowledge a series of problems as it was exporting far more energy than had been agreed. For its part, Switzerland got its sums wrong. Then Italy was probably slow in reacting to events.
Where Switzerland is concerned, let us not forget that until last September we were the principal exporter of energy to Italy. Switzerland needs to do a lot of work in the areas of liberalisation and grid management to ensure greater compatibility with other European countries, if we are to maintain our traditional position as “control room” for the energy market in western Europe.
swissinfo: Following the introduction of restrictions on the use of the Gotthard tunnel, there were protests from Italian hauliers. How prepared is the Italian government to see goods transferred from road to rail, which is a priority for Switzerland?
A.L.: It is true that there is a strong road transport lobby, and it gains strength from the fact that Italy is very vulnerable to any blockage of the major road traffic arteries.
Having said this, I believe Italy is making great efforts to develop its own infrastructure, including railways. In the last few years, I have travelled all over the country and my impression is that we are seeing a change of attitude: politicians realise that the road system is overloaded and that the solution involves the development of intermodal transport, of which the railways are a vital component.
Obviously, the difficulty in bringing about such a sea change lies in the detail. The idea is to rationalise and optimise the transport system, but without penalising the economy.
swissinfo-interview: Mariano Masserini
Alexis Lautenberg was born in Zurich in 1945.
He has served with the Swiss foreign ministry since 1974.
He headed the Swiss mission to the EU from 1993-1999.
He has been Switzerland’s ambassador to Italy since 1999.
Switzerland’s ambassador to Italy is preparing to leave Rome and take up his new post in London, as part of the normal rotation of diplomatic staff.
The five years he has spent in Italy have not all been plain sailing.
Among the more difficult issues were the electricity blackout of September 28, 2003, and the controversy over judicial cooperation.