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23 June, 2017

“When there is a feeling of separation between those governing and those governed, it’s wrong”

The Ambassador of Switzerland to Ukraine and Moldova on the nature of politics in his country, Swiss-Ukrainian relations

Interviewed by Anna Korbut

How does Switzerland see the EU and itself with regard to the EU? Has that perception changed over the decades of the EU’s existence?

There is no direct answer as Switzerland is a very diverse country. Many different opinions of the EU coexist and vary between segments of the population – those very much in favor and those completely opposed to the EU. But there are also many who are more moderate and want to maintain a good relationship with the EU without being part of it. Over the years, there has been a general acknowledgement of both the EU’s contribution to peace, stability, economic growth and values, as well as of its shortcomings like its centralization, its lack of direct democracy which is very important for the Swiss population, the EU’s bureaucracy and some economic flaws.

As a result, the Swiss population is not ready to adhere to the EU, as it has made clear in the past by voting narrowly against joining the European Economic Area. Nowadays, talks of adhesion are no longer on the political agenda as the politicians have taken note of the population’s opposition to Switzerland becoming an EU member state.

At the same time, we probably have the most intense bilateral relations than at any point before. We have a network of strong bilateral agreements; we have had many votes on EU-related matters. That’s also an important element: the Swiss people were asked on the issues of European identity, values, principles and regulations at referenda, - many difficult issues - and remarkably, they voted yes, until 2014 (when Switzerland narrowly voted in favor of immigration quotas - Ed.). We are not in the EU, but we are strongly European thanks to our shared values. It is sometimes difficult to understand for outsiders.

Meanwhile, that European identity is often questioned in EU member-states by some aspiring forces. And they push for the fragmentation of the EU. How could these changes affect Switzerland?

The EU is politically, economically and financially absolutely central for Switzerland, so we need good relations with the EU.

I’d like to give you a few numbers: 55% of the Swiss exports go to the EU and 73% of Swiss imports come from there. We are the fourth most important trade partner of the EU. Moreover, 1.3mn people out of almost 8mn inhabitants of Switzerland come from the EU, meaning that the links are not only economically important, but from the perspective of human relations.

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What many Swiss have problem with is the lack of direct democracy and decentralization in the EU. In Switzerland, we vote on anywhere between two to seven topics every three months. This means that every political process, from the very early stage, begins with broad consultations and an understanding that some sort of a compromise will be needed, as the population will have the final say.

You don’t see that too often in other countries. There, you have a majority swinging directions every four or five years, and no consultations in between. As a result, when there is a vote the population is less responding to the question, but rather making a political statement against or in favor of the government. In Switzerland, people are a bit more integrated into everyday political life of the country.

Meanwhile, direct democracy is increasingly being used as a tool by populists for their ends – and sometimes quite successfully. In your opinion, what does it take to make nations vote responsibly and make informed choices?

I don’t think we’re better than any other country in that. We’ve just been lucky enough to develop our system for a long time.

Switzerland opted for direct democracy. But this system is refined by a political system that makes it work: We have two chambers in Parliament, like in the USA, one for the people and one for the cantons. Moreover, our MPs are very close to the people, as they all are not professional politicians. It is dangerous to bring direct democracy to a country without it having a political culture revolving around it, as you might have the kind of reaction I mentioned before: people voting against or for the government, not on the topic discussed.

The best way to prevent populism is to have a government and MPs close to the people. When there is a feeling of separation between those governing and those governed, it’s wrong.

Switzerland is known for neutrality, among other things. Now that we see NATO challenged from inside and outside and hear talk of the European army, how would that impact Swiss perception of its own security architecture?

We follow the developments in NATO closely, but we ourselves have adopted a principle of active military neutrality. This means we are self-reliant, assume protection of ourselves, and we continue to develop a strong Swiss Army to protect the country and its neutrality. The main defense strategy for Switzerland is to ensure respect of international law and obligations as a key principle of interstate relations while keeping the capacity to defend our borders ourselves.

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Neutrality is something that’s widely recognized and accepted by the Swiss, as well as abroad. When it was enshrined in the Vienna Convention in 1961, many states were probably interested in a Switzerland that remained neutral. And there is no debate among the Swiss about joining NATO, which was never a topic of discussion unlike the EU membership issue.

Does this neutrality allow Switzerland to wield external influence? Is that something the country seeks?

The Swiss neutrality doesn't prevent us from pursuing an active foreign policy and assuming important diplomatic responsibilities, such as chairing the OSCE in 2014, being an active member of the UN and a candidate for a UN Security Council seat in 2023-2024, board members at the IMF and WB. Thus, Switzerland is neutral, but actively engaged.

Also, we have a good level of technical and humanitarian cooperation with other countries, including Ukraine. Such cooperation is completely apolitical and therefore usually accepted by various sides of crises. Geneva is an interesting case regarding neutrality and diplomatic influence: it is here, on Switzerland’s neutral ground, that the UN hosts many conferences, more than in New York, where new elements of soft security are discussed, and where many International Organizations have their seats. So there is a nexus between human security, rights, development, and health, all being discussed in Geneva.

In addition, in Geneva there is strong presence of civil society bringing direct democracy to the international level. Many NGOs and think tanks are involved here, they are being consulted, their opinion is taken into account in the process of creating norms that affect everyone. Thus, an element of our daily security is created in Geneva, including for example regulations on the internet or health system. We are an incubator of this kind of consultative process which is also part of defending Swiss interests in a broader sense, alongside more classical means such as diplomacy or the military.

Meanwhile, crises are rising that breed conflicts. The most immediate examples are Syria or Russia’s aggressions against its neighbors. International communication on these happens but no solutions are found. That leaves an impression that the consultation process is the end in itself rather than an effective solution-seeking mechanism. Isn’t that something that Switzerland reflects upon?

It is an issue. But it’s not an issue of Switzerland or its neutrality. It’s an issue of international relations, as peace processes can drag on for years. The sad reality of political life is that not all crises can be prevented and not all solutions can be found. But at the same time, what could be the alternative to consultation processes? Sometimes good solutions are found as a result of long processes.

In that context the role of Switzerland, as I see it, is to facilitate debates and create conditions for a quicker and better process, while recognizing that success can’t be taken for granted. In the meantime, it is important to give humanitarian organizations the opportunity to help people to alleviate the tragedy of the situation. As an example, what Mr. De Mistura, the United Nations and Arab League Envoy to Syria, is trying to do every day in the Syria talks by bringing the parties together and looking for possibilities is amazing. The same goes for the ICRC – it’s a neutral organization working hard on bringing humanitarian assistance to those in need. I am convinced that having a neutral state is useful. And I don’t think that neutrality means being silent or indifferent. Neutrality means that Switzerland has the right and the duty to speak out when international norms are violated. Everybody understands that when we say that, there is no hidden political agenda, but an assessment of the state of events.

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Switzerland is often criticized for being used as a haven for corrupt money, including from politicians who become sources of instabilities in various parts of the world. However, Switzerland has been changing its transparency and financial reporting rules to respond to these accusations. Where is the process now?

Indeed, Switzerland, just like many other countries, has had the banking secrecy system. But the country is also attractive because of its political stability and good bankers who can provide good return on the money. This banking secrecy model is now over, and not only for our country as there is huge pressure to end this practice. However, the consequences of former policies will remain for a while. We still have to be vigilant and monitor the situation.

In our own recognition (albeit some in the country opposed this), that model was not a healthy one. So Switzerland has put in place the most progressive law on money laundering and asset recovery.

We worked well with the Ukrainian authorities, for instance, to detect such assets. Together with Austria, we were the first country to freeze the money of certain individuals in order to identify the crimes that were committed leading to the theft of that money. This process is a long and complicated one as there are adverse forces, and as the rule of law has to be respected.

The first freeze was for three years in 2014. We extended that freeze for another year in the end of 2016, and will continue to do so as necessary in order to allow Ukrainian authorities to find the crimes and culpability of those individuals. We have good examples with Nigeria, Haiti, and Angola where we had frozen and identified stolen money. This money could then be repatriated thanks to good cooperation with the state concerned. But the process is long. This should be understood by the media and the public.

Let’s move to the relations between Switzerland and Ukraine. There is a strategy for the cooperation through 2018. Could you give more details?

As we celebrate 25 years of diplomatic relations this year, we also celebrate 20 years of technical cooperation with Ukraine. It means that twenty years ago we decided to establish with the Government of Ukraine the framework into which we will bring technical assistance. This is re-discussed every four years, the latest strategy running until 2018. There is a cooperation budget approved by the Swiss Parliament, including roughly USD 100mn for Ukraine. We have a Cooperation Office in Kyiv focusing on four main directions: governance and peace building, health, sustainable energy management and urban development, sustainable economic development and humanitarian aid.

Energy efficiency is very important for the independence of Ukraine, as well as for the environment. Another one is decentralization: We strongly believe that the more people are in direct contact with their authorities and vice versa, the less corruption happens. We work a lot in the health sector and cooperate very well with Acting Health Care Minister Ulyana Suprun. For 12 years, we’ve been working actively on maternal health, childhood and young mother elements. Now we focus more in the area of non-communicable diseases, promoting healthy lifestyle as part of preventive medicine.

Interestingly, Switzerland was first to bring organic farming elements in food production in Ukraine. We helped SMEs in agriculture develop organic standards, food and labels, and bring them into exports. These enterprises have now grown a lot and are more self-sufficient as they have access to the EU through the labels that can be recognized. It’s a great success story and a successful example of cooperation.

Also, since the conflict in the East of Ukraine already began in 2014 when we drafted our strategy, peace promotion is part of it.

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What would you list as the most visible outcomes of technical assistance implementation?

The example I will give reflects the spirit and philosophy of the assistance. One area where Switzerland and German speaking countries are quite progressive is vocational training. It is based on the idea that young people do not all need to go to university, but that technical work is very important and can be a sound basis for successful career. It requires good cooperation between the state, schools and companies. This works great in Switzerland as kids at the age of 14-15 may decide that they don’t want to go to high school and then university, but prefer to work and learn in parallel. They find a place in a company which agrees that this person will go to school part-time 2-3 days a week. The school, in turn, offers a specialized program that meets the needs of that company, and, at the same time, enables the apprentice to increase his or her general knowledge.

What we try to bring in Ukraine now, even if on a small scale, is the same system. We have one good example where a company realized that there are not enough people who can fix their items. The company looked around and found that there is only one school in Kyiv Oblast with two or three graduates each year. And there is huge demand for these specialists. So the company came to us, we looked at schools and together with them we developed vocational education programs around the country preparing kids for those jobs. If we can multiply this example in various sectors, similar to the vocational training system in Switzerland, many will benefit from this.

How do you assess Ukraine’s ability to absorb technical assistance?

We don’t face problems with this. Even though we are among the top five bilateral donors, we still provide a relatively small sum of around USD 25mn a year. However, this also enables us to be very pragmatic, concrete, delivering results and not only making promises. Here, we know our partners, private or public, national or local. We monitor everything, know the result, can correct things quickly when we see them going in a wrong direction. And frankly we have very good results, as proved by our work in Vinnitsa on energy efficiency, helping the city to win a European award.

Apart from technical assistance, what opportunities do Swiss investors see here?

Swiss investors were early in Ukraine. We now have more than 120 companies operating here. Many of them have state-of-the-art production facilities here. Just to give you one example: not far from Kyiv, a company produces glass bottles. They have two lines working 24/7, producing all kinds of bottles, from soft drinks to alcohol with modern equipment. They export a lot of their produce to Italy, Germany, other countries, and make bottles for local producers. Moreover, the excess heat from the heating system which is necessary to produce glass can be used to warm the city houses.

What I’m trying to say is that Swiss companies come not only to benefit from cheap labor, but to produce items of quality with the same state-of-the-art systems they would use at home. They bring a lot of know-how to the country and the workers who learn how to use this machinery.


Guillaume Scheurer received his Law degree from the University of Neuchâtel and did his postgraduate studies in International Security at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva. He achieved the military grade of First Lieutenant of Artillery during his military service in the Swiss Army. He entered the Swiss Foreign Ministry in 1992. Over the course of his career, Amb. Scheurer held a number of positions at the OSCE, including member of the Task Force in Berne for the Swiss Chairmanship of the OSCE in 1996, Deputy Head of the OSCE Section in Berne in 1997, and First Secretary at the Swiss Delegation to the OSCE in 1998-2001. In 2013-2015, he was Deputy Head of the Delegation to the Swiss Delegation to the OSCE (2014 was the year of Swiss Chairmanship of the OSCE). In 2001-2005, he was Deputy Chief of Mission at the Swiss Embassy in Teheran, which also represents U.S. interests in Iran. In 2009-2013, he served as Deputy Head, as well as head of the political and legal section, of the Swiss Embassy in Washington, D.C. In October 2015, Mr. Scheurer was appointed Ambassador of Switzerland to Ukraine and Moldova.

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