Which foreign policy position for Switzerland?


by Dr iur Marianne Wüthrich

Admittedly, it is not always easy for Switzerland as a small and preferably independent state and its representatives in politics and diplomacy, and even more so in the context of contractual negotiations, to cope with the predominance of the EU in everyday European affairs. It can also be quite difficult to maintain an upright attitude towards foreign politicians of all kinds, but, in the subject matter, to remain steadfast on the basis of the rule of law and neutrality policy. But it is possible, this is often documented, and corresponds to the self-chosen role of Switzerland.
If you want to appear on the media’s frontpages, you will choose a different approach than the careful politician who is concerned with the matter. And everyone who has trained to tell foreign committees what they want to hear and to act accordingly is sometimes even in danger of sweeping uncomfortable national referenda – or the resulting constitutional articles – under the carpet.

“Only when Swiss government members and diplomats have a dialogue with foreign governments on an equal footing it will be possible to offer good offices in interstate conflicts.” (picture reuters)

Great excitement in various European countries: The Turkish Foreign Minister and other Turkish politicians of the government party want to appear abroad to convince their fellow citizens living there that they should vote in the upcoming referendum in the sense of the government. Many European politicians and media are criticizing the content of the planned Turkish constitutional reform because it would significantly strengthen the power of the head of state and weaken Parliament’s ponderosity which would be a threat from a democratic and constitutional perspective. From this position some politicians, also in Switzerland, vote for entry bans and bans on speaking. How is this to be assessed from the perspective of constitutional and public international law?

The freedom of expression is valid

Well, it is the right of the media to publish their opinion on informing voting documents at home and abroad. This corresponds to the freedom of the press. Freedom of expression, however, does not only apply to the press, but to every human being, whether or not we share his opinion. So also to foreign politicians who want to visit their compatriots in Switzerland and talk to them – whether we have sympathies for the government or not. Of course, the freedom of speech is also valid for the opponents of the government’s bill.

In a mood of heated and excited debates, it is a good thing that the head of The Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA), Federal Councillor Didier Burkhalter, said in an interview in the first program of the radio station in the French speaking part of Switzerland, RTS (Radio Télévision Suisse), that the freedom of expression is unquestionable one of the most fundamental rights in the democratic constitutional state. In contrast to other European governments, he stood by the fact that, from this perspective, there was no reason to prevent the presence of the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu in Switzerland (see box with excerpts from the interview).

Handling with foreign governments in Swiss way

In fact the planned presence of the Turkish Foreign Minister in Zurich did not take place on 12 March. Apparently Federal Councillor Burkhalter in a personal meeting with his Turkish colleague has been able to achieve, that the minister decided to renounce his visit for now – without any unintended comments. On 23 March, Federal Councillor Burkhalter met Foreign Minister Cavusoglu in Berne – without any prior notice and without media presence. Then Cavusoglu met some visitors at the Turkish embassy.
The prudent behaviour of the Swiss Federal Council is therefore an indispensable basis for Swiss neutrality policy. Only when Swiss government members and diplomats have a dialogue with foreign governments on an equal footing it will be possible to offer good offices in interstate conflicts. So Burkhalter could make an effort to achieve a rapprochement between the war parties in 2014 in Ukraine when Switzerland held the OSCE presidency. The people of Ukraine and other heavily disrupted and destroyed countries should be wished that Switzerland could use the institution of good offices more often.
According to Federal Councillor Burk­halter’s opinion some Swiss media have had second thoughts about the democratic and constitutional foundations that apply not only to those whose opinions suit our book: “For our country freedom of speech is a valuable commodity – unlike many States in the European neighbourhood. Whoever wants to speak in front of a meeting has to abide by the laws, such as the racism standard, and he has to abide strictly by the security requirements of the authorities. Rightly we do not know any other conditions. It cannot be that we generally want to forbid the presence of foreign politicians, just because sometimes their attitudes do not fit us. Let us not forget that, on 1 August, our Federal Councils would also like to be present in front of Swiss citizens abroad, where they would certainly hold political speeches, possibly even promote a yes or no vote.” (“St. Galler Tagblatt” from 18 March 2017)

Turkish referendum and abidance by the principles of the rule of law

From the democratic point of view, however, it should be noted that the Turkish population is, after all, allowed to vote on whether or not it wants a shift of power towards the president. The fact that fundamental reforms are submitted to voters is not common throughout Europe, let alone in the European Union. Its top politicians often speak loudly and concisely in order to demand compliance with “democratic basic values” in other countries – but woe if the citizens of individual EU member states dare to vote against the pre-determined direction of march from Brussels.
Perhaps the majority of Turkish voters – in view of wars launched from abroad and the resulting chaos and terror in their neighbour states – have other ideas how their state is to be led? It is the Turkish people to decide. Naturally, in doing so, the principles of the rule of law and the fundamental rights of individual people must be respected. This is, as already mentioned, more to be attained on an equal footing and in peace, than by unobjective verbal attacks.    •