How do you feel as you are leaving your position as Federal Councillor and Minister of Economic Affairs?
Nostalgia and relief are my companions since I announced my retirement in September. Nostalgia because being a Federal Councillor is a very rewarding job. It was a great honour to serve my country and give something back. I got so much as a citizen and businessman! It was also a privilege to meet and exchange with so many exceptional people in Switzerland and abroad, but also with many ordinary Swiss citizens whose kind words of support gave me the necessary strength and confidence to give my best. Relief, because it is a tough job with manifold responsibilities, which are as interesting as challenging. I was happy to serve, and I am happy to have a little more privacy and liberty. I am looking forward to investing more time in my family and maybe some interesting venture capital projects.
What do you consider to be the biggest achievements during your career in the Swiss government, and as well as your time in the EFTA family?
In the EFTA family, it is without question the recent signing of our free trade agreement with Indonesia. This is a market of 260 million potential consumers with an up and coming middle class. There are already more than 40 million middle class consumers around in this country and 40 million more people should pass this threshold in the next years. I think that the EFTA partners are now very well positioned to make the most of this dynamic new market. However, we were also able to achieve many other significant results in the free trade area. I am also very proud that we kept a good working atmosphere between the partners and that EFTA remains a solid anchor of our foreign trade policies, at a time where trade wars and protectionist temptations seem to have made an alarming comeback. As for Switzerland, I am very proud to have kept my country at the cutting edge of education, research and innovation. This is, with a liberal labour market and our social partnership, one of the three pillars of our economic success. Nevertheless, it is never finished when you leave. There is still a lot to do and my successor will not get bored.
Looking back on the past 8 years, what do you think Switzerland can learn from its EFTA partners and what can EFTA partners learn from Switzerland?
That is a difficult question, because as similar as our countries are in terms of population, international links and competitiveness, our economic interests differ quite a bit. Working together with countries who have access to the seas and fishing grounds to defend is sometimes quite challenging for a landlocked country such as Switzerland. This, for sure, comes down to different worldviews and you have to keep an open mind. As much as it is sometimes challenging, it is also quite a rewarding experience. What we have certainly learned from working together is pragmatism and flexibility. Those are in my view two essential qualities that are certainly no stranger to the successful FTA network EFTA has managed to build over the past years with so many partners around the globe.
In your opinion, which are the main challenges for EFTA and the EFTA States in the coming years?
In general, I am concerned with the rise in inward-looking attitudes in many countries and the deterioration of the international trading environment globally. This should make us work even harder towards making economic globalisation more open, balanced and beneficial to all. The signing of our agreement with Indonesia is a very positive sign in that direction. It shows that with a sufficient amount of trust and good will on both sides, mutually satisfying deals are still possible, even in a more uncertain environment. However, if we want to remain attractive partners in the future, as a bloc or individually, I believe that the main challenge ahead will be to be able to come along with additional flexibilities in the area of agriculture. That is especially true for Switzerland.
In the current economic and political climate, what do you believe should be the aim of EFTA?
I think that the aim of EFTA should be to continue to advocate globally for open and free trade for the benefit of all and to actively communicate on its merits and what we owe to it. Concluding trade agreements with the Mercosur countries and with India would send very positive signals in that direction. Our aim should also be to remain a step ahead of every potential agreement that the EU may sign with other partners in the world. EFTA industrial and export-oriented economies cannot afford to be discriminated in that respect to our main competitors.
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