"Switzerland engaged in the world, because it's up to us to build the future"
Geneva, 22.08.2016 - Opening address by Federal Councillor Didier Burkhalter on the occasion of the Ambassadors and International Network Conference 2016 - Check against delivery
Ladies and gentlemen,
"The future is our concern", wrote a Swiss essayist. I would add: it is up to us to build the future. The future is not what will happen to us but essentially what we want to make of it. The aim of all politics is to shape the future, to prepare the best possible future, to create opportunities for our children and our children's children.
It is because you believe this, ladies and gentlemen, that you chose the profession that has brought you together here today.
The reason I wanted to invite you to this conference, dear Paolo, is that you believe in political action and political will, and in the need to find concrete solutions to challenges.] Speaking for myself and for everyone present here today, I would like to thank you for the friendship you have shown us by accepting our invitation. It is a real honour for us to have Italy's foreign minister among us. We look forward to hearing how you envision building this future with respect to relations between our two countries, which are neighbours and friends – and from a European and multilateral perspective.
Ladies and gentlemen
Laying the groundwork for the best possible future for Switzerland means ensuring its position in the world and, if possible, improving it. The fact is that Switzerland is doing well, as numerous rankings attest.
We are even doing rather well in the Olympic medals table – congratulations to our athletes! And especially if we look at indicators such as quality of life and employment – particularly youth employment – education, competitiveness, and research, it's clear that Switzerland has remarkable strengths. We owe this fortunate situation to the generations that came before us, because they made good provisions for their children's and their grandchildren's future: for our future. They understood that it was up to them to build the future. It is our responsibility to preserve this model of success, and to make it sustainable. It's time to roll up our sleeves to build the future here at home in our domestic policies and, of course, also in our foreign policy.
The Federal Council defines and pursues our foreign policy. It can implement our foreign policy thanks to you, who are gathered here today in Geneva, and to your colleagues. Thank you! But we cannot rest on our laurels. We have to stay fit – to build a better future. The same applies to our personnel policy, where we also have to be ready to meet the multiple challenges of foreign policy while taking the specific characteristics of the FDFA and its various personnel categories into account. A key question here will be to examine the feasibility of introducing a function-based system for diplomatic and consular careers.
The Federal Council has tasked the FDFA to submit an initial analysis to this effect by the beginning of 2017, and I have asked the Head of the Directorate for Resources to look further into this question.
We ought to deliberate this question openly, without prejudging the result. This proactive approach should allow us to propose solutions that will take due account of the FDFA's missions and specificities, such as the transfer system. A function-based system is not an end in itself, but it can be one of the means to sustainably promote the suitability and attractiveness of foreign policy careers. The various careers – all of which reflect specific skills and values – will play a significant role in this new framework. The analysis that will be carried out in the Department with the close and transparent participation of those who work for it – a point that is very important to me – will determine the potential advantages and drawbacks of this change. Although a cost assessment is obviously necessary, this is not a cost-cutting exercise per se. The aim is rather to ensure optimal conditions for recruiting, training, and motivating staff across all foreign policy careers while addressing two major challenges:
First, a world where geopolitical tensions lead to proliferation of fragile contexts and conflicts and, second, a society that has become more complex, more demanding, and more individualistic – where it becomes more difficult to attract and keep talent.
Reforms always bring some uncertainty. Nevertheless, I think that reform is not only necessary but an opportunity – because in this field, as in many others, continuing with business as usual would in fact be a step backwards.
It is an opportunity to build on what we have. We aim to make our foreign policy even more coherent and effective, based on a number of strengths: competition, equality of opportunity, transparency, and individual responsibility. I thank each and every person who is actively involved in this project. This spirit of dialogue is essential for us to create a system that will enable us to build the future better together.
1. Foreign Policy Strategy 2016-2019
Ladies and gentlemen,
We are in the first year of a new legislative period. Now is the time to set foreign policy priorities for the years ahead. The Federal Council has done just that by adopting the foreign policy strategy for the years 2016 to 2019. This is a four-year strategy that is set within a ten-year frame of reference. It represents continuity but takes account of the changes that have taken place in Switzerland and the world. As you are quite familiar with this new strategy, there is no need for me to go into its details. Let me just recall three important cornerstones:
1. First, we have the principles of our foundational text, the Federal Constitution, which is a long-term guide for action.
2. The second cornerstone consists of Switzerland's political culture and institutions, which influence the values we want to promote, such as democracy, peace, diversity, and the power of dialogue.
3. And finally, we have the changing international environment. We are facing growing rivalries, a rising number of regional crises (in Ukraine, Syria, the Middle East, and elsewhere). We are also confronting an increased threat from terrorist groups; the plight of tens of millions of displaced people around the world (65 million by now, the equivalent of the population of Italy or eight times that of Switzerland!); and international law coming under pressure from power politics. We are facing a world that has become less stable and predictable.
What does that mean for our foreign policy? The Federal Council's response is:
- "Law, not power": It is in Switzerland's interest that international relations continue to be regulated by international law.
- We want political solutions to conflicts: It is in Switzerland's interest that solutions to crises are found through diplomacy and dialogue. Switzerland can be a bridge-builder in this area.
- Finally, our objective is an international order based on common rules: it is in Switzerland's interest that international and multilateral organisations and mechanisms can provide solutions to crises within an agreed and legitimate framework.
The Federal Council's strategy is organised around four priority axes:
1. The EU and its member states
2. Our global partners
3. Peace and security, as well as
4. Sustainable development and prosperity
These themes and related topics will determine our activities in practice and how we organise ourselves.
The appointments made at the beginning of the legislative period will be made with the aim of further strengthening our ability to implement the foreign policy strategy.
As you know, after more than four years as head of the Directorate of Political Affairs, State Secretary Yves Rossier has asked me if he could be included in the list of transfers. I thank him for the commitment, creativity, and energy with which he has carried out his work and wish him every success in his future post.
The post of State Secretary will be advertised at the end of this month and I look forward to receiving the candidatures. Let me take this opportunity to thank all those who are willing to assume this fascinating responsibility and those who will continue to steer the Department towards the Federal Council's foreign policy strategy and its priorities.
I would also like to thank State Secretary Georges Martin, coordinator of this ambassadors' conference. I thank him for his commitment and for the work he will continue to do by my side in other capacities.
It is a privilege to be able to work alongside people who focus on the only thing that matters: defending the values and interests of our country and its people. I look forward to continuing to do just that.
Today I would like to mention two of our strategy's priorities: our relationship with the EU and our commitment to peace and security, particularly within the framework of the multilateral system and the United Nations.
2. Switzerland and the UN
Ladies and gentlemen,
The European Union is Switzerland's main partner at the human, cultural, scientific, and economic levels. Together with our neighbour, the EU, Switzerland has developed a vast network of agreements under the umbrella of the bilateral approach. Following the vote of 9 February 2014, the Federal Council set itself the goal of ensuring greater control over migration and of consolidating and developing the bilateral approach.
Switzerland is not a member of the EU and does not wish to become a member. But, like the EU, Switzerland has an interest in a relationship regulated on the basis of law.
It’s a relationship that promotes opportunities for cooperation in areas of common interest. It’s a predictable and stable relationship that guarantees legal certainty.
The bilateral approach is the only option capable of obtaining a consensus among the Swiss people – and we need a strong internal foundation for our foreign policy. The bilateral approach is also a win-win method to strengthen the relationship between Switzerland, the world's 20th biggest economy and Europe's seventh, and its neighbours. Switzerland offers employment to a large number of EU citizens who live in Switzerland or just across the border: nearly one in ten people who benefit from the free movement of persons in Europe are in Switzerland!
Additionally Switzerland and the EU engage in trade worth nearly 1 billion francs every working day! Switzerland also contributes to the European security system via the Schengen area, and also through its involvement in the OSCE. Switzerland strengthens European research as a leading contributor to this sector.
At the same time, Switzerland benefits from facilitated access to certain sectors in the EU internal market, and it participates in European policies and programmes, particularly in the fields of research, education, and security.
But here too, the situation has changed in recent years, to some extent, because of the popular vote in Switzerland in 2014, which altered the basic conditions, but also because the EU is changing: it has faced crises, particularly financial and security crises. The EU has never stopped strengthening its internal market and community skills. It has also just experienced an important turning point with another referendum: the Brexit vote.
The British people's decision raises numerous questions for Britain itself, for the EU, and for Switzerland. It will take months or even years to get answers to many of these questions. But we can already be clear about Switzerland's intentions with respect to the United Kingdom and the European Union.
For one thing, the Federal Council intends to take proactive and constructive action to further its relationship with the United Kingdom. Our countries are key partners: we take part in nearly 20 billion francs worth of trade every year, and some 35,000 Swiss nationals live in Britain.
Our ties are so close that there are 150 flights between our two countries every day (one flight every 10 minutes!). The Federal Council intends to maintain strong ties with the UK, which will have to be redefined through new agreements. Talks are currently under way with the British government to this end.
The Federal Council also wants to find solutions concerning the relationship between Switzerland and the EU. The discussions we have been having with the EU for several months were put on hold while the outcome of the Brexit vote was awaited. We are now at a crossroads. The Federal Council is hard at work to arrive at an agreed solution with the EU by the end of the year, which is the only way to ensure the legal certainty that is needed by the business sector in the short term and that is necessary for a positive climate for investment. Tomorrow's jobs in Switzerland and in the EU, in particular in our neighbouring countries, depend on this.
Against this backdrop, it is also very much in the interest of Switzerland and the EU to ensure that the international order is negotiated and organised in a clear and predictable framework. Neither Switzerland nor the EU has anything to gain from power games.
The situation created by the Brexit vote may make finding a solution even harder. But would it make more sense to allow yet another problem to get worse? Wouldn't it be wiser, and would it not better serve the interests of the people of Switzerland and the EU to resolve these problems with a little more pragmatism? The Federal Council thinks that the time is ripe for Switzerland and the EU to move forward, to find answers to questions about the future of Switzerland's relations with the EU – solutions of mutual interest to the citizens of Switzerland and the EU.
Switzerland and the EU have agreed to intensify technical discussions. The Brexit vote has not blocked the discussions; on the contrary, it has made it possible to speed them up: we have a window until the end of the year to find an agreement. Here too, it is up to us to build the future.
Do we want to turn it into a crisis? Or work on solutions?
At the same time, we are engaged in negotiations on an institutional agreement – here too in order to ensure legal certainty and to benefit from a clear and predictable legal framework over the long term. The aim of this agreement on legal certainty is to preserve and develop the bilateral approach in the long run for our children and our grandchildren.
This agreement has not been finalised, because it would not obtain majority support in Switzerland at present. But if the contents of the agreement are sound, it may well win majority support in the future, because it will allow us to have long-term access to the European market, including new sectors of the EU market, and to avoid discrimination against our business community.
With the dynamic but not automatic incorporation of EU law into Swiss law, Swiss participation in developing EU law, Swiss supervision of its own territory, and – at the end of the process – decisions taken by joint committee and not by a court of justice, Switzerland has already negotiated the main outlines of a solution that preserves its sovereignty and offers a future to the bilateral approach. But some questions remain open. As long as the agreement is consistent with the Federal Council's objectives, once it is finalised, it will be presented to Parliament and eligible for a referendum.
The Federal Council does not intend to legally bind this agreement to a solution on the free movement of persons, which must be worked out first in any case, as the timetables for approval are very different. But it would not be possible to engage in discussions with the EU on free movement of persons at this juncture if negotiations were not under way on the institutional agreement at the same time.
We have reached a crossroads. We are in the middle of difficult negotiations, and I remain optimistic! In politics you have to have political will, faith in worthwhile projects, and the ability to stay the course. It's not a question of being naive. But we must show determination and believe that it is possible to build the future and work hard to make it happen. I don't know for certain that we will reach an agreement with the EU in all these areas. But – and I'm sure you'll agree, Paolo – I do know that it's possible.
It is possible if the will is there on both sides, if we muster sufficient political will and work with vigour, creativity, and a good measure of pragmatism.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The first part of our strategy addresses not only the relationship between Switzerland and the EU but also with its member states, and first and foremost with our neighbouring countries. Italy is one of these important neighbours, our third largest trading partner, the country with which we share our longest border. Some of our highest and most majestic mountains straddle the border with Italy. It is worth recalling that even the Matterhorn, the symbol of our country, is co-owned (so to speak) by Switzerland and Italy. Italy is a country with which we share the Italian language, which contributes to the linguistic and cultural richness essential to the Swiss identity of which we are so proud. It is a country that has more than 300,000 of its citizens living in Switzerland. A country we want to bring physically closer to much of our country: we took a giant step this summer in opening the Gotthard Base Tunnel. We have moved mountains to improve our links! And we did it with the decisive contribution of Italian workers and expertise.
I applaud, my dear Paolo, our ties of friendship and professional cooperation. Like all neighbours, we have some problems we need to resolve. We are making progress: in the area of security and in tax matters. We want to continue to work together in the European context: on the question of Swiss-EU relations. Let me take this opportunity to thank you for Italy's committed support in this area – on the issue of migration at the European and global levels, as well as on the issue of international security – particularly within the OSCE, which Italy will chair in 2018.
Your presence here today underscores the quality and importance of this relationship. I thank you for being here.
3. Switzerland in a multilateral world
In its foreign policy strategy, the Federal Council attaches great importance to promotion of effective multilateralism, in particular in the area of peace and security. The international community has managed to conclude important new agreements (the 2030 Agenda, the Paris Agreement on climate change). But the record is considerably less positive as regards managing and preventing conflicts, as well as finding agreed solutions to security problems.
In the face of major crises such as those currently besetting Ukraine and Syria, the United Nations Security Council is often incapable of agreeing on joint positions.
Over the last several weeks, we have witnessed an escalation of violence and deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Syria, particularly in Aleppo.
In the last few days, images of a small boy named Omran, which shocked all of us, have put a human face on the suffering.
Switzerland calls on the parties to the conflict to restore the cessation of hostilities, guarantee rapid and unhindered humanitarian access to the humanitarian actors, and to adhere strictly to international humanitarian law.
The struggle for power being fought on the backs of countless innocent children, women, and men must end once and for all. Switzerland supports the work of the UN Special Envoy for Syria, promotes dialogue between the parties to the conflict, and helps alleviate suffering within the civilian population through humanitarian aid and delivery of ambulances to the affected areas, such as the ambulance that transported Omran.
However, it is essential that parties to the conflict andregional and international actors clearly show that they are willing to make concrete progress at the political level so that a viable solution to the armed conflict in Syria can finally be found.
It is evidently also difficult to find solutions at the regional level. Some states tend to think of the OSCE more as a place to promote their positions than as an organisation devoted to a meaningful search for solutions.
There is not only lack of progress in tackling various conflicts but also other security-related issues: for example, the 2015 Review Conference of Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons did not produce the necessary results.
These are worrying trends. The crisis of multilateralism is not just cyclical. It has deeper roots. In a multipolar world, the search for multilateral solutions presents a challenge in and of itself. The resurgence of geopolitics and power politics, the return to power relationships between states, the disregard for established rules and international law, the upsurge in authoritarianism – all these trends weaken multilateralism and destabilise the global order.
That said, I would like to share with you three things of which I'm certain:
1. In order to deal with the challenges that concern us all in this multipolar world, there is no alternative to multilateral solutions.
2. Switzerland's security, prosperity, and independence depend largely on proper functioning of a fair and rules-based international order.
3. Switzerland holds the right cards to make a constructive contribution to strengthening multilateralism. In this area, Switzerland can and must do its bit to help build the future: it is one of the defining purposes of its diplomacy. I am convinced that the more the multilateral system struggles to find majority supportand the more (multi)polarised the world becomes, the more crises it faces. Yet this also means the more the profile of a country such as Switzerland becomes useful and sought after. As a country that is neutral and independent, that has no hidden agenda, and is pragmatic, discrete, and reliable, Switzerland has many advantages in playing a specific role. And it has an interest and responsibility to play this role.
What should be Switzerland's contribution to a multilateral future? I would like to make five points on this topic.
1. First of all, as I've mentioned, Switzerland has, a unique foreign policy profile. It has a long-standing commitment to fostering dialogue and consensus. We are on nobody's side and can therefore build bridges and strive to reconcile differing views.
During its chairmanship of the OSCE, Switzerland invited foreign ministers of the participating States to an informal meeting on Ukraine in Basel, a discussion at a fondue event in Davos, and a side event on European security on the margins of the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York.
In this regard, we welcome the initiative of Germany's chairmanship of the OSCE to host an informal ministerial meeting in Potsdam this coming 1 September. We also congratulate Italy on its election to the chairmanship of the OSCE in 2018. I would very much encourage you, Paolo, to organise these types of informal and intensive exchanges among ministers.
2. Second, we must come up with good ideas to enhance the capability of international organisations to take action. Switzerland tops the global innovation table. It should also be a world leader in foreign policy. To cite just one example, Switzerland launched an appeal on 13 June to step up conflict prevention efforts through better compliance with human rights and proposed strengthening ties between the Human Rights Council and the Security Council.
3. Third, Switzerland must act in a pragmatic way, and yet remain true to its principles. We are in favour of inclusive multilateral formats, but we are also well aware that discussions in small groups and dialogue between great powers can be useful for identifying solutions. I am thinking of the monitoring groups for Syria and Libya, or the Paris initiative to restart the peace talks in the Middle East. I am also thinking of the Normandy format, which was set up to respond to the Ukrainian crisis. However, it is important that these kinds of initiatives seek to complement and support the work of organisations such as the UN and the OSCE, not to take their place.
4. Fourth, Switzerland not only wants to strengthen the capability of the UN and the OSCE to take action but also to support regional organisations of which it is not a member.
We are working to promote development of regional cooperation and cooperative security structures – for example in East Asia and in the Middle East. We seek to promote dialogue and cooperation among the actors in these regions.
5. Fifth, the Federal Council seeks to strengthen the hub of skills and opportunities that is International Geneva. We want to make Geneva stronger as a global centre for peace and security in particular. This will require modernising infrastructures, starting with the Palais des Nations. Switzerland will extend a loan of 400 million francs for its renovation (the appropriation bill is about to reach the last stage in Parliament). It will also require strengthening the institutions based in Geneva and optimising their synergies.
This too is one of the pillars of the host state strategy developed by the Confederation and the Canton of Geneva. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Canton of Geneva for its excellent cooperation. I am also very pleased about the excellent collaboration with the UN and the international organisations.
I am thinking in particular of Michael Møller, Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva. I thank him for his work, relentless commitment and warm hospitality.
Ladies and gentlemen
Building on its strong commitment to effective multilateralism, Switzerland is moving on to the next step by submitting its candidacy for the United Nations Security Council.
I congratulate Italy on its recent election to the Security Council. The formula that was chosen – a seat shared with another member of the EU – is a creative solution that has broken the logjam in the General Assembly. It was a reasonable and responsible decision. Switzerland thanks Italy and the Netherlands, wishes them the best of success in carrying out their mandate, and looks forward to fruitful cooperation with them in New York.
Switzerland, for its part, is for the first time in its history a candidate for a seat on the Security Council, in 2023–2024. Switzerland has been campaigning for this, in its own way, for several years. This candidacy will be a priority of our foreign policy strategy over the next few years.
Let me already thank everyone for their commitment.
Why is Switzerland putting forward its candidacy? Not as an end in itself but a means to an end. The goal is to help to strengthen peace and security, prevent crises, and reform the United Nations system to make it stronger, fairer, and more efficient. The goal is to build the future together. We must also demonstrate Swiss humility and patience, because not all of these goals will be realised.
Or it may take a long time to achieve some of them. It will take determination, creativity, commitment, pragmatism, and persistence. We have these qualities. And it is well worth the effort because all progress, even modest progress, is useful. Therefore, we will have to balance our ambition with responsibility.
This campaign for a seat on the Security Council does not mean that Switzerland will completely redefine its role in the United Nations. Switzerland will remain true to its commitments across a broad range of UN areas of action. But it will reinforce the lines of action and define priorities and political initiatives. In the coming months, we will step up our efforts within the FDFA (and together with other Federal Administration departments) to identify, define, and specify the priorities of our working agenda for this candidacy. I would like this process to integrate as many resources and ideas from within the Department and beyond, starting with the insights and creativity of young people.
I thank everyone involved for their contribution and long-term commitment to this process.
Just before I addressed the General Assembly in 2014, I asked the Swiss Youth Representative who accompanied me to New York to tell me what his dream for the world was. I would like to close with these words: "A world where people are able to solve their problems peacefully, without violence; a world of freedom and mutual respect; a world where all young people have the opportunity to find work and happiness."
This profoundly Swiss vision seems to me perfectly reasonable. It is a young person's vision, but it also happens to be in keeping with our ancestral values. I hope that it will inspire us as we work to build this candidacy together, to build the future together.
Thank you for your motivation and dedication to our country's place in the world.
Address for enquiries
Federal Palace West Wing
CH-3003 Bern, Switzerland
Tel.: +41 58 462 31 53
Federal Department of Foreign Affairs