Dimitris Rapidis

One of the most eloquent diplomats I have ever met, the Swiss Ambassador in Athens Dr. Lorenzo Amberg discuss with me in Dimi’s Lab on Glocal Politics a wide range of issues: from the economic crisis and austerity politics, the Swiss banking system, the migration and religious issues, to the role of Ioannis Kapodistrias in Switzerland and the unique governance model of his country. Enjoy!

1. After witnessing the economic crisis and stagnation in Greece and Europe, what do you consider as the most fundamental element that could eventually trigger growth?

If anybody had the right and full answer to this difficult question, he or she would instantly qualify for a major international prize. There is the greater picture of the complex and often intransparent mechanisms in global economy and in the banking sector, there are the specificities of the eurozone and the European institutions, and there is the particular situation in Greece. A combination of malfunctions in some of these fields has led to the present crisis. The growing discrepancy between rich and poor in our societies, between the virtual (financial) and the real (productive) economy and the feeling, by many European citizens, to be ruled by an elite whose priorities are far from their daily preoccupations, have to be overcome. The most urgent challenge is certainly to give the younger generation a good education and jobs, a perspective for the future. Their future is the future of Europe! Clearly, in the strategy of overcoming the crisis, which is focussing exclusively on financial consolidation, the grave social consequences have been underestimated. One worrying notion is the ideology of “TINA”, “there is no alternative”.

Democracies and international organisations should be able to admit that they have taken wrong decisions, if such is the case, and then adapt their strategy accordingly. Any model has to be permanently redefined in view of its efficiency. Free market economy and the financial markets need to be regulated in a sense that they are again able to fulfill the basic needs of the citizens, such as the right to work. The freedom of the markets must guarantee the freedom of the citizens to live a life in dignity. This is today probably the main task for the European democracies.

 

2. The Swiss banking system has been in the middle of a strong debate during these years of the global economic crisis. Do you believe that the unique trust and safety of the Swiss banking system has been damaged by the pressure to identify fugitive funds and savings from Greece and elsewhere?

Surely the Swiss banking system is already no longer the same as it was for many decades, when one of its business models was to accept untaxed and sometimes even criminal assets from abroad under the cover of the banking secrecy. Already today it is virtually impossible to deposit “dirty” money in any Swiss bank, thanks to the numerous regulations which have been put in place during the last years by our authorities. Lately, not only the Swiss Government, but also the Swiss bankers have made it clear that Switzerland will proceed to the automatic exchange of information once this rule will be internationally accepted and implemented. But this will by no means be the end of the Swiss banking system, which has been flourishing since the 18th century, long before the banking secrecy had been introduced in the 1930s.

The Swiss banks are globally appreciated for their reliability, discretion and efficiency, against a background of the stable political structures and the firm legal framework of the country. Many foreign clients will therefore continue to put their assets in Swiss banks. I don’t therefore believe that the trust and safety of the Swiss banking system has been damaged, as you suggest. Yes, it is undergoing a major and necessary adaptation to the international environment, towards transparency and respect of ethical principles, but its basic qualities will remain unchanged.

 

3. Which are the most fruitful fields of cooperation between Greece and Switzerland and which other do you consider that need to be further developed?

The main fields where our both countries are engaged in a dynamic and fruitful cooperation are energy, fiscal matters, migration, and culture. As you know, TAP is a Switzerland based company with a major Swiss shareholder, Axpo. The Swiss embassies in the countries along the future gas pipeline have been supporting this project for over three years. We are therefore quite satisfied that the Shad Deniz Consortium chose TAP as the pipeline through which Azeri gas will be transported to Western Europe. We believe with the Hellenic Government that TAP, an investment of 1,5 billion euro, can become a major vehicle of the recovery of the Greek economy. Besides this specific issue, Switzerland and Greece are cooperating under a Memorandum of Understanding on energy matters, mainly renewable.

In the fiscal field, the finance ministries of our countries are negotiating an agreement on the taxation – past and future – of untaxed Greek assets in Swiss banks. This agreement, once concluded, will create a sizable additional tax income for the Greek state.

As far as migration is concerned, Switzerland, being a Schengen state, is very much aware of the difficult situation of Greece which bears the burden of 90% of all illegal immigration into the Schengen space. Switzerland contributes every year with Swiss border guards to the securing of the Evros border region. It offers technical know-how to the Greek migration authorities. The successful visit of the Swiss minister of Justice and Police, Mrs. Simonetta Sommaruga, to Athens last April and her encounter with Minister Nikos Dendias was a further step in our cooperation.

In the cultural sphere, besides a number of current projects, we are already looking at the 50th anniversary of the Swiss Archaeological School in Greece. A celebration at the Acropolis in Museum in May 2014 is planned, alongside a series of other events like the invitation to the Antikenmuseum in Basle of the fascinating Antikythera exhibition of the National Museum.


4. According to your opinion, what is the most important contribution of Ioannis Kapodistrias in the early steps towards Swiss unification?

The name of Capodistria in Swiss history is linked with the re-shaping of Switzerland in 1814 after the unfruitful attempts by Napoleon to create a unified Helvetic state. Switzerland was at that time at the brink of a civil war, with the big Cantons trying to regain their privileges and pushing their territorial claims, and some smaller ones struggling for their independence within a future federation. During several months, as the special envoy of the Russian Tsar Alexander I, Capodistria talked to the representatives of every Canton and finally convinced them all to adopt a Federal Agreement which led the path to the Federal Constitution of 1848. Capodistria was a diplomatic genius. He showed his skills again in 1815 when he brought through the declaration of permanent neutrality for Switzerland by all the big powers of that time. Definitely, Switzerland owes him a lot.

Unfortunately, Capodistria remains largely unknown by the Swiss public today. His work will be highlighted next year, when Switzerland will mark the 200th anniversary of diplomatic relations with Russia. The first envoy of Russia to Switzerland was Capodistria in 1814!

 

5. How would you characterize the relationship between Switzerland and the European Union in the field of migration policy? Have you received many Europeans from the South seeking job opportunities these last years?

Switzerland is a Schengen state since 2008 and as such, fully committed to the free movement of persons, goods and services in the Schengen space. There has since been a significant increase in the influx of Schengen state citizens to Switzerland mainly, but not only, from Germany. The rough percentage of foreign nationals residing in Switzerland is today at 20% (with a population of 8 million), plus around 300,000 so-called “frontaliers” who cross every day the border in order to work in Switzerland. While this workforce is very much needed and welcome, the rapid and substantive influx of foreigners is also a challenge in terms of infrastructure, housing and transport. It creates uneasiness with parts of the local population. This feeling is exploited by some political parties. Therefore, the Federal Council took recently the decision to exercise its right to slightly limit the number of residence permits for citizens of the Schengen states. However, this measure has little practical meaning, as it will expire in less than a year. I am confident that Switzerland, which has a long experience in managing immigration and fostering integration, will cope with these challenges. The model works as long as the Swiss economy can offer enough jobs, which is the case today.

The number of Greek citizens taking up jobs in Switzerland has roughly doubled in two years, but the actual numbers are rather low (less than one thousand per year).

 

6. Do you believe that the federal system of governance in Switzerland could be a model for a more efficient political union in the European Union?

Our federal system of governance, called the direct democracy, is a complex, finely balanced and transparent mechanism. It is slow and sometimes even complicated, because before taking a decision or adopting a law, all interested parties are consulted. And even if a new law has been passed in Parliament, it can be challenged by a popular referendum. Another expression of the direct democracy is the possibility to launch a popular initiative (vote on an extra-parliamentary law proposal). Then there is the principle of subsidiarity which means that almost all competencies are situated at the local or cantonal level (with a few exceptions like defence, foreign policy, customs and currency). The Federal Government is therefore rather small (7 Ministers, 1 Chancellor and 4 State Secretaries), and its members represent all major parliamentary parties and at least two different linguistic regions. The administration of the three levels – Commune, Canton, Confederation – is close to the citizen, and bureaucracy is reduced to the necessary minimum.

The Swiss would be of course proud to see the European Union develop in this direction. But I believe that every country or Union has to find its own way of building its institutions. The best guarantee of success is to build them from the bottom and not from the top.

 

7. How Switzerland is dealing with Islamic conservatism and how balances between religions are kept in your country?

Switzerland has a long-standing tradition of religious tolerance, multiculturalism and positive integration of foreigners. Muslims constitute today the second biggest religious group (after Catholic and Protestant Christianity) in our country. Most of them originate from the Balkans and from Turkey. The Muslim citizens and residents are generally well integrated in Swiss society and can freely exercise their religion in about 160 mosques and prayer houses. Since 2009, however, a popular initiative put forward by a right-wing party forbidding the construction of new minarets was adopted by a majority of the voters. This led to a heated discussion about the role of Islam in our society. Since then, the debate has cooled down. It is perhaps important to note that there is no radical Islamic movement in Switzerland today.

 

8. In a comparative basis and from your personal and professional experience, which was the most demanding diplomatic post you had ever had?

In a diplomat’s life, every posting offers you mainly what you put in it yourself: your engagement, your interest, your intellectual curiosity. All my postings have been extremely satisfying and interesting. I started as a translator at our Embassy in Moscow from 1978 to 1981, then, after a break for University teaching and writing my PhD, I returned to the MFA to deal with humanitarian and multilateral affairs before going again abroad to Belgrade 1997-2000, New Delhi, Moscow and, as a first time head of mission, Georgia and Armenia (2006-2010). In Belgrade, to witness the last years of the Milosevic regime and the NATO bombings was as fascinating as it was challenging. Later on, the mediation efforts and negotiations between Georgia and Russia on one hand and Armenia and Turkey on the other were a particularly captivating experience for me. In terms of professional and personal experience, Greece is a unique place. Every day, I learn something new about Greece’s language, history and politics, not to speak about the very instructive insight in EU crisis management and local crisis experience. This posting is so fascinating that I asked for a one year extension with my Ministry!

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