UN offers little to business

Thomas Held director of Swiss economic think tank Avenir Suisse Keystone

Switzerland's decision to join the United Nations will do little for the economy, according to leading Swiss sociologist, Thomas Held.

This content was published on March 11, 2002 - 10:24

However, Held, director of the Swiss think tank Avenir Suisse, told swissinfo in an exclusive interview that a "no" vote on UN membership would have been economically harmful.

"It's not just the image of Switzerland that would've been damaged. If you look at international trade relations, if you look at the whole procurement scene I think Swiss business interests would have been partially affected."

"I think the 'yes' vote doesn't mean a lot. It would have meant something if the vote had been negative," explained Held.

"I think people were afraid that the vote would be negative but they did not believe that much would change by actually joining the UN."

Business support

The business community was at the forefront of the campaign to persuade voters of the benefits of joining the UN, spending millions of francs in the process.

Supporters of UN membership included the Swiss Business Federation (Economiesuisse), the Swiss Employers Association and the Swiss Traders' Association.

Under the umbrella of the Swiss Business Federation, most of the country's biggest companies such as UBS, Novartis and Nestlé were all urging people to vote "yes" on March 3.

The alliance of forces helped the initiative to become successful, Held said.

"I think the 'yes' vote was due to the support of basically all the political and business elite. I think the frightening thing was that even when you got the support of the media and artists, even some quarters of the cultural and intellectual scene that normally don't take part in these sorts of things, that we only got this very small margin."

Bilaterals remain key

The bilateral agreements between Switzerland and the European Union on such issues as transport, mobility of labour and public procurement remain the key agreement that will benefit the Swiss business community, Held noted.

"I think the most important thing here is the agreement on the mobility of labour so that Switzerland can really draw on the high tech, highly qualified labour in the surrounding countries more easily. I think all these fears that foreigners would flood Switzerland were entirely false."

Held expressed concern about the outlook for the second round of bilateral agreements between Switzerland and the EU.

These will cover such issues as pensions, savings and the free transport of people and goods across internal borders.

"It's not very clear what 'bilaterals two' will bring to the business scene. There is a lot of scepticism with regards to 'bilaterals two'. I think people would like to see 'bilaterals one' in place and wait some time before new negotiations take place."

Tough negotiations

The upcoming negotiations between the EU and Switzerland will be a whole lot tougher, Held says.

He believes Switzerland will have to start thinking more like an EU member when fighting its corner as national interests are coming increasingly to the fore.

"The 'bilaterals two' are a whole new ball game because now the demands on Switzerland have clearly grown. I don't want to go into some kind of legitimacy question on these demands but it seems to me that if you look at the overall developments in the Union that protectionist or even nationalist interests are clearly on the rise."

Switzerland's financial community is in for a tough battle on taxation of savings and banking secrecy. But Held feels these issues actually have more to do with the EU states trying to knock the Swiss competition.

"If you look at some of the threats to the 'Finanzplatz Schweiz' its very clear that it's nothing to do with money laundering or ethical issues but actually competition. This happens in the Union all the time now. So I think there will be a different type of negotiations in which Switzerland will have to behave much more like one of the members fighting with the other member states."

Get stuck in

The ideal situation for Switzerland would be to see just how the first round of bilateral agreements affect the economy. Unfortunately the pressure from the EU is mounting to get on with the next round as soon as possible.

"The pressure by the Union to go on with the 'bliaterals two' is considerable. So much is at stake there. I look at Switzerland, this being our mandate in Avenir Suisse, and I'm a little bit afraid that Switzerland isn't ready to cope with the scale and complexity of these new negotiations."

Held feels that negotiations between Switzerland and Germany over flight routes through German air space into Zurich Airport are an example of how Swiss demands are quashed by our larger EU neighbours.

"If you look at the treaty on air traffic in Zurich with Germany one can have certain doubts that the strategy and the tactics are in place for such a complex deal as bilaterals two," added Held.

by Tom O'Brien

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