‘Shy statesman’ Burkhalter receives mixed rating

Former US Secretary of State John Kerry jokes with Didier Burkhalter, centre, at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos in 2016 Keystone

The decision of Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter to step down at the end of October has surprised many in Switzerland – including the Swiss press. Assessments of his performance are divided. 

This content was published on June 15, 2017

“Didier Burkhalter, the lonely diplomat,” declared the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on Thursday, the day after the cabinet minister announced his resignation. “It’s as if this keen football fan played in two leagues simultaneously. In the Premier League, he was the diplomatic star, who was celebrated for his presidency of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in 2014 and whom the press imagined as possible successor to Ban Ki-moon at the United Nations.” 

Then there was the second division player, who “suffered the war of the trenches in the cabinet, the repeated shots from the press and opposition from his own party”, the paper added. 

Burkhalter, 57, announced on Wednesday that he would leave his cabinet post at the end of October as it was time to “write a new page in his life”. He dismissed speculation that he was disappointed with the government or frustrated by increasing criticism in parliament over the handling of Swiss relations with the European Union. 

European factors 

Many papers, however, said Switzerland’s complicated relations with the EU was a key reason for his departure. 

“Despite his eternal optimism, he was the only one to believe in an institutional agreement [with the EU],” said the Aargauer Zeitung. “He is leaving without being able to explain to the wider public the need for this agreement with the EU.” 

The top diplomat has been keen to put EU ties on a new footing via a treaty formalising relations now based on numerous bilateral economic accords. However, the idea has run into opposition from critics, especially from the right wing. 

Leaving office suddenly is not a very Swiss way of doing things, said French-speaking daily Le Temps, but it allowed Burkhalter to rid himself of this “millstone around his neck which had become heavy and frustrating”. 

Le Temps added that Burkhalter had also “never managed to get over” the February 9, 2014 anti-immigration vote. Relations with Brussels suffered a serious setback when 50.3% of voters approved immigration curbs, temporarily blocking negotiations on a series of  bilateral accords. 

‘Mr Normal’ 

On other issues, such as defending so-called International Geneva, Burkhalter was more successful, the papers generally agreed. 

“Not only did Geneva rediscover its appeal as a base for negotiating hot global topics, but Burkhalter also made sure the federal authorities gave specific support to major ongoing projects like the costly renovation of the UN Palais des Nations building,” wrote the Tribune de Genève. 

Praise also came from the L’Express and L’Impartial papers, from Burkhalter’s home city Neuchâtel, which wrote that as a cabinet member since 2009 Burkhalter had always preferred the “team game rather than an audacious solo run under the eyes of the watching cameras”. 

The Fribourg daily La Liberté also welcomed his collegial approach to politics, while reminding of his constant desire to remain “Mr Normal”. 

“This very Swiss normality was his strength and his weakness,” it said. 

In 2014, a photo of Burkhalter posted by Le Temps journalist Serge Jubin on facebook went viral. It showed the foreign minister (then honorary president) quietly tapping away on his mobile while waiting for a train from Neuchâtel station, surrounded by commuters - but no bodyguards.

‘Didier who?’

Others were more scathing of the politician from the centre-right Radical Party. 

“Didier who?” wrote the Blick tabloid. “Even after years Burkhalter didn’t seem to have really entered into his role … internationally he did a good job. But he didn’t manage to explain his foreign policy in Switzerland. He was sidelined in the cabinet as he was fighting in favour of an institutional agreement with the EU that nobody wants.” 

The Basler Zeitung described him as a “shy statesman”. 

“He has been in politics for 30 years…but he doesn’t like fighting for a cause and doesn’t like explaining the same things 100 times,” wrote Der Bund in Bern. 

The Tribune de Genève echoed this. “Didier Burkhalter left as he governed: with energy, class and honesty but without great charisma or stature or convincing arguments.” 


Next steps

Burkhalter is due to leave his foreign minister job at the end of October. On Thursday, following the announcement, his centre-right Radical Party announced it would open the nomination process, which will close in early August. Parliament will then elect his successor in the multi-party cabinet on 20 September. 

According to an unwritten Swiss rule, the replacement should be a French- or Italian-speaker to ensure equal representation between the language regions in the seven-member cabinet. 

It is widely thought that his centre-right Radical Party will be able to keep two seats beside the two members each of the leftwing Social Democrats and the rightwing Swiss People's Party as well as one seat for the centrist Christian Democrats. However, observers do not exclude a reshuffle of cabinet portfolios.

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