Small country view hinders Swiss ambitions abroad

The Swiss parliament in Switzerland's miniature park in Melide Keystone

The Swiss media may have high hopes that the new foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, will bring fresh ideas to her office.

This content was published on January 12, 2003 minutes

But there is little expectation abroad of any great change in policy as long as Switzerland remains wedded to neutrality and outside the European Union.

"The stress is on continuity and reliability," Michael Bergius, the European Union correspondent for the Frankfurter Rundschau in Brussels, told swissinfo. "This makes Switzerland a trusty partner.

"But the Swiss political system is not one in which a new government comes into power every four years, leading to a potential shift in foreign policy."

Clive Church, professor of politics and international relations at the University of Kent in England agrees that a change at the helm of the foreign ministry is unlikely to make a huge difference to policy.

However, he believes Switzerland's recent membership of the United Nations will allow it to wield more political clout and change will come about gradually.

"Switzerland now has - with the exception of the EU - pretty much the same range of international institutional openings as other countries," he told swissinfo.

"Although I still foresee a long period of evolving foreign policy instruments [such as EU membership], I think with a generational change a shift in policy is likely to come about, but it will be a slow process."

Historical hangover

For Church and others, Switzerland's struggle to find a new direction in foreign policy since the end of the Cold War is rooted in its tradition of neutrality.

While the political elite in Switzerland has acknowledged that the world has changed, Church says it has not been able to persuade a majority of the population to accept a new direction.

"Neutrality in other countries was never quite as all-embracing or as firmly rooted as in Switzerland," he said.

"It has become something that people value very much and don't wish to give up."

For Sergio Romano, the former Italian ambassador to Moscow and journalist with "La Stampa" in Turin, Swiss foreign policy in recent years has maintained a low profile because the principle of neutrality is sacrosanct.

"Neutrality has become a kind of relic, a cult object or a religion in Switzerland," he told swissinfo. "But it belongs to a past era."

"Now that Switzerland is a member of the UN it will be forced to take a stance on a number of [foreign policy] issues - for example its position on war with Iraq, if there is one."

Making a mark

Former Swiss diplomat Edouard Brunner is also confident that Swiss membership of the UN will enable the country to pursue a more vigorous foreign policy without losing its influence in the fields of international law and human rights.

"Switzerland's voice will be heard if we lay the groundwork properly and try to talk to the main players involved in an issue," he told swissinfo.

"But the question of course is on what level - perhaps not in an international conflict with Iraq, but certainly in other areas such as Sudan, Sri Lanka or Yugoslavia."

Brunner thinks Swiss membership of the EU should not be a foreign policy priority. Instead he thinks the emphasis should be placed on negotiations in the second round of bilateral agreements to forge closer ties between Switzerland and the EU.

Tough progress

But Diana Wallis, a British member of the European Parliament, maintains that Switzerland is making the route to eventual EU membership even more difficult.

"The lessons from recent Swiss history are that it seems to take its time about joining international institutions - and I don't think there is anything wrong with that," she told swissinfo.

"But negotiations over the bilateral agreements mean that the relationship with the EU is continually under debate, and Switzerland is perhaps not in the same position of strength as it perhaps might be as a full member."

The Swiss president, Pascal Couchepin, has repeatedly said that Switzerland must at some point join the EU, but it would be a long process made up of a series of small steps.

Church says although such a slow approach is typical of a western democracy it is perhaps compounded in Switzerland by the country's system of direct democracy in which all policy decisions must be put before the people.

He also admits that the size of the government - it is made up of just seven cabinet members - has had an impact on the power of successive foreign ministers and their ability to redefine clear policy goals.

"When you have seven members it is possible for all of them to have a say in foreign policy," he said.

In other countries such as Britain and France - where there are over 20 cabinet members - each minister is more confined to their own portfolio and the foreign ministry has a bit more freedom of action."

Upholding human rights

A great failing in recent Swiss foreign policy, according to Church, has been the country's inability to define its national interests.

The policy of neutrality meant that the country did not become involved in conflicts and it pursued policies of upholding human rights and defending international law to guarantee a more law abiding and peaceful world.

Church says that although it allowed Switzerland to develop its economic and political interests during the Cold War, it has led to confusion as to what currently constitutes the national interest.

"When the Swiss try to define interests they talk about maintaining international law and ethical dimensions," he said.

"That is a great service to the international community, but I am not completely convinced that if I were a Swiss tax payer I would necessarily think of those things as being top of my list for what were national interests."

swissinfo, Jonathan Summerton

Key facts

May 1992 - Switzerland joins the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
November 1996 - Switzerland joins Nato's Partnership for Peace programme.
June 2002 - A series of seven bilateral accords with the EU governing trade issues and the free movement of people come into effect.
September 2002 - Switzerland becomes a member of the United Nations.
January 1 2003 - Micheline Calmy-Rey takes over as foreign minister.

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