Schwalba-Hoth: Switzerland ‘totally disconnected’ from EU

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There is no political debate on Europe in Switzerland, like in the former Communist countries in the past, political strategist Frank Schwalba-Hoth told EURACTIV in an interview. Together with the NGO Berner Politgespraeche, he plans to launch a debate to influence decision-making in Brussels.

Frank Schwalba-Hoth works for the NGO ‘Berner Politgespraeche’. He is one of the founders of the German Greens and a former MEP, and has also been in charge of the Greenpeace office. 

To read a shortened version of the interview, please click here.

You are a former German politician, and now you help the Swiss with their EU strategies. Why? 

I was in Brussels for 24 years and what I knew was, of course, [that] the US is our first partner to receive our goods, but who is number two? 

I thought it was Russia, China, Japan, but it’s them, it’s the Swiss who are the second largest recipient of EU goods. But when you go to Switzerland and speak to Swiss politicians, business people, stakeholders in the economy, you are totally astonished that they have a strange relationship with the EU. 

Like a partriarchal family a hundred years ago, they receive information from Brussels – they perceive it as orders, without having a clue why it is coming now [or] what it is linked with. And they execute. 

The Swiss have an embassy in Brussels, a mission, a trade representation – they even have a law firm specialised in law cases, but they are totally disconnected, a little bit like the 12 countries who joined the Union recently were ten years ago. 

What they have is a basic knowledge of the EU – superficial opinions – and most of them [have a] clear opinion [on whether] Switzerland should join or not join. But they are totally disconnected from all the small nitty-gritty things you have to know, because there is no debate in the country on specific issues linked to EU politics. 

The Swiss have a strong practical sense. If they engage now in a concerted effort, using the knowledge of people like you, there must be an objective. 

The objective is to provide oxygen to stimulate such a debate in an intelligent way. This is why Berner Politgespraeche was established – not to convince anyone that ‘you have to love the EU,’ but to stimulate the debate on the EU in which Switzerland is indirectly a part. 

If you are a Swiss businessman, there is no easy way of getting an analysis of what the EU’s next steps will be and how would they affect Switzerland and your business in particular. Yes, all the EU legislation is available, but there is no Swiss perspective, there is no political analysis of what it means for the country. No one is specialised on it, no one is distributing it to those interested. 

The Swiss seem to be interested in the EU tax policy on bank accounts more than anything else? 

At the moment the issue of tax is being heavily debated among the Swiss, even around restaurant tables. But there are other issues no less important – transport, climate change, REACH (the chemical legislation), migration policy, Schengen. And when you speak to important people, they jump back in time and say, well, if we had made an analysis, we could have made a better case. And by this process of debate Switzerland could also deliver ideas to the EU. Because Switzerland is one of the cradles of European democracy. 

And it also has original solutions to a number of problems. Is this Switzerland’s specific way of providing aid? 

That’s precisely because Switzerland is an engraved-in-stone democracy, when half of the EU countries don’t really have a long history of democracy, not only the former Communist countries, but also Spain, Portugal and Greece. 

Switzerland can contribute by showing how to deal with populist explosions, how to integrate large number of foreigners, dealing with several languages, and be successful economically – I think we have a lot to learn from Switzerland. 

Your NGO is organising a conference in Bern entitled ‘How to talk about Europe and how to talk to Europe’, which starts today. What do you hope will be the result of the conference? 

I wish that 30% of the participants would decide, after the conference, to come to Brussels for a short visit, when there would be a specific event, to understand better for themselves how Brussels functions and how they could better fit into this EU world. And by this induce the political representatives of Switzerland to intervene not after the decision, not during the decision, but even before. 

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