By Tanguy Verhoosel
Could Switzerland’s growing network of bilateral tax agreements represent part of the solution to the European Union euro crisis? The Swiss foreign minister thinks so.
During her farewell visit to Brussels, Micheline Calmy-Rey made more rallying, or at least less provocative, speeches than usual.
The veteran politician, who will retire from government and politics at the end of the year, was invited by the foreign affairs committee of the European parliament to speak about the partnership between Switzerland and the EU on Tuesday before attending a big “Swiss soirée” in a very trendy nightclub in the Belgian capital.
Switzerland is a “supportive partner” of the EU, she told the European deputies, pointing out that Bern contributed financially to the reduction of economic and social disparity in the union, constructs routes across the Alps and takes part in peace missions in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Calmy-Rey also noted that Switzerland played a role in the stabilisation of the economic situation in Europe, through the International Monetary Fund and the Swiss National Bank. And this role could grow, thanks to “Rubik”, the name given to the bilateral tax agreements concluded in August by Switzerland with Germany and Britain.
“European parliamentarians began to look towards Switzerland as part of the solution [to this crisis] as soon a withholding tax [taken by Swiss banks from the income made on capital in non-resident accounts] made it possible to transfer some money to countries in difficulty. Not as part of the problem.”
In short, Switzerland could quickly meet the demands of beleaguered Greece – the country is suffering a haemorrhage of capital, estimated by some at €200 billion (SFr247 billion) – to open tax negotiations with Bern in the hope of boosting state coffers. Exploratory discussions are already under way with Athens, which could also give ideas to France, or even Italy.
Other equally sensitive negotiations are appearing on the horizon. The EU wishes to give its relations with Switzerland an institutional dimension which they do not currently have.
For Brussels, it’s particularly about creating mechanisms which would allow the innumerable sector-specific bilateral accords made with Bern to be adapted to developments in European legislation and to more efficiently monitor the way in which they are applied by Switzerland.
Calmy-Rey called on her partners to display “positive sobriety” in this context. And she made it crystal clear.
The minister has earned the nickname “Madame bilaterals” and is seen as the standard bearer of the EU integration strategy of Switzerland, a country which obstinately refuses to join the union. Calmy-Rey certainly recognises that Bern also has a major interest in clarifying the rules of the game, but not at any price.
It would be out of the question, she said, to tamper with the country’s sovereignty by automatically adapting its legislation to developments in EU regulations.
She also ruled out giving priority to those institutional questions. As long as Switzerland wants to conclude new accords with the EU on agriculture, electricity and market access for pharmaceutical products a “global and coordinated approach” must be followed.
The Europeans have been duly warned. But they are not alone: Calmy-Rey, who appears visibly liberated from a certain duty to hold back, made a stinging attack on the rightwing Swiss People’s Party, two weeks before the federal elections of October 23.
The People’s Party wants to renegotiate the agreement Switzerland made with the EU on the free movement of people, to reduce the number of foreigners in the country.
To call into question this agreement which benefits the economy “is the most stupid thing that one could say”, said the minister.
(Translated from French by Clare O’Dea)