Election 2012: Swiss-U.S. Relations: What does that mean?

As the world, and Switzerland, keep an eye on the upcoming US presidential elections, we have been looking at the relationship Switzerland has had with the United States in the past. But today and tomorrow, we want to look more broadly at a few of the issues which matter most between the nations now. WRS’s Tony Ganzer will take a broad look at banking, and taxation issues tomorrow, but this morning he examines other aspects of the bilateral relationship.

If you ask experts to describe the relationship between Switzerland and the United States, the impression you get is a pretty positive one:

ALFRED METTLER: “I think in general the relationship is very good.”

MARK NEDLIN: “If I step back and look at the overall relationship, I think it is quite strong and quite solid.”

CHRISTA MARKWALDER: “Historically, we have a very relationship between Switzerland and the United States.”

But what does having a good relationship, or a strong relationship mean in practical terms? It would be fair to say it has a lot to do with business, and trade.

PATRICK Djizmedjian: “If we have a look at the export statistic from last year, we had nearly 20 billion Sfr of exports from Swiss companies to the United States. This shows that after Germany it is the United States which is the second most important export market.”

Patrick Djizmedjian is spokesman for OSEC, a group promoting Swiss exporters.

DJIZMEDJIAN: “Not only chocolate and watches. Swiss companies are very strong in pharmaceutical and chemical market, but also in the precision instruments and the machine.”

MARKWALDER: “All international companies operating from Switzerland to have business units in the United States, and also offer jobs, which is in the current economic situation also important for the United States.”

Christa Markwalder is a Swiss lawmaker from Bern on the Foreign Affairs Committee. Despite the good relationship there has been tension between Switzerland and the U.S.

One realm of particular conflict has been over data exchange to the U.S., and the legality of that under Swiss law.

Much of this data pertains to bank clients, but other data is from passenger lists or law enforcement databases.

MARKWALDER: “We have seen recently also the tendency of the United States to just export their own rules to the world, but the close interdependence of the European economies and the U.S. economies leads de-facto to decisions which we just have to adopt, which is not a comfortable situation for a sovereign nation of course. But at the end of the day Switzerland has a rather pragmatic approach, so we also try to avoid hurdles for our economy.”

Not afraid to show Swiss pride in Uetikon
Not afraid to show Swiss pride in Uetikon

Markwalder says other European countries with similarly tight data protection laws forged the path to dealing with the US before Switzerland, showing the Swiss the way.

But one important fact to remember is that Switzerland is not part of the EU, and thus not as prominent on the radar of Americans.

Charles Kupchan is a professor of international relations at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a public policy think tank.

KUPCHAN: “I think the United States views Europe as its most important partner in the world, and in the first instance that means the European Union and its members, since the EU is in some ways where the action is and what Americans worry about in terms of the Euro Zone fiscal crisis. And Switzerland looms particularly large in the American mind primarily because of its financial sector.”

While some moves by the US may be seen as “exporting policy,” as Markwalder noted, Kupchan sees issues like data exchanges as touching American national security, which prompt strong-willed responses.

But he admits efforts to track terror funding, or exchange data, have been some of the most trying issues for the transatlantic relationship, not just with Switzerland.

As for Switzerland’s general importance, Kupchan says despite its size, its place outside of larger organizations, as an adviser to groups like the G20, is not all bad.

KUPCHAN: “Switzerland punches above its weight on the international stage because of its financial sector, because of its reputation. So for a country of seven to eight million, I think Switzerland does pretty well. In cases when the leader of a G20 country says ‘I want you help,’ are moments of opportunity for Switzerland to exercise greater influence. I would also point out there are advantages to being a country that to some extent stays at margins of geopolitical life.”

One benefit being a choice of staying out of international conflicts, for example.

But it also means the Swiss don’t have as much sway on the international stage, or the ability to influence a superpower.

This has put particular strain on Switzerland’s attempt to turn away from its banking secrecy past, toward a “cleaner” future.

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