The then Federal Counsellor Johann Schneider-Ammann’s 2016 speech recommending laughter as a way to deal with illness is mostly remembered for his dour presentation. The straight-faced Swiss German didn’t crack a smile while extolling humor. Numerous parodies of the laconic recitation went viral, so much so that the initial message was forgotten. The importance of the role of humor was overwhelmed by the deadpan delivery of the messenger.
The Swiss Federal Council and the Swiss diplomatic community have been all aflutter about who would go to Brussels to negotiate with the European Commission. While it was obvious from the protocol perspective that the rotating Swiss president, Guy Parmelin would go, the question was who would accompany him. Would Ignazio Cassis, the foreign minister, go along? If not, how would Parmelin, a farmer with little international experience, be able to negotiate an institutional framework agreement between Switzerland and the EU that has been blocked for years.
The art of negotiation, and it is an art, has become a regularly studied academic and diplomatic subject since Roger Fisher and William Ury’s set off a cottage industry with their 1981 best seller Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. (It became a perennial best-seller and is now in its third edition) Individuals, companies and nations have all signed on to the Harvard Negotiation Project and its spinoffs to try to learn how to get to yes.
But the negotiation between two sides assumes that the negotiators have already been chosen. The actors negotiating have to have the authority to make decisions that will be binding after any agreement is reached. After all, what is the point of negotiating if the agreement reached cannot be implemented by one or both sides? Each negotiator must have the necessary legitimacy for his/her side for an agreement to hold.
In Switzerland, pre-negotiation among the Federal Council determined who would go to Brussels. (Cassis will not.) But the very fact that there was a discussion indicates that there was less than unanimity among the Federal Counsellors about who would go, an indication of a lack of agreement on the position of the Swiss Government. Not simple, therefore, for Europeans to understand the Swiss position if among the Swiss authorities they hesitate in deciding who will go to Brussels to meet with Ms. von der Leyen.
To add to the confusion: Who is Switzerland negotiating with? An example of pre-negotiation problems is the protocol mishap about the chair for the European Commission’s head in the recent meeting with the Turkish President Erdogan. Was the Commission’s head less important than the European Council’s President Charles Michel? Who was Erdogan negotiating with? If the Europeans couldn’t get their chain of command straight, how were the Turks to negotiate seriously with them? The “Sofagate” scandal was certainly not an impressive example of European unity or respect for women’s rights.
The question of legitimacy and authority is the basis of all negotiations. The question of who you are is the fundamental fact that must be understood before any negotiation can take place. What is the point of negotiating with someone who has no authority?
The Swiss federal system has many attractions. But, in certain situations such as the negotiations with the European Union or even the question of who is in charge of the pandemic emergency, the lack of clear authority hampers decision-making. A federal democracy has its obvious advantages as well as disadvantages. This is not a call for dictators or autocratic rule. No one questions President Erdogan’s authority, but people should not forget his violations of human rights. Rather, it is a recognition that pre-negotiations about positions of power can show potential weaknesses in later negotiations.
If the Swiss and Europeans are to have fruitful negotiations to get to yes on an institutional framework agreement, both sides must be clear about the identity of the other side. So just as Switzerland’s federal system hinders clear lines of authority, the EU’s devolution of power also raises questions. The April 23 Brussels meeting should clarify lines of authority, a pre-condition to reaching any meaningful agreement. 80% of Switzerland’s trade is with EU member countries. So getting to yes is a Swiss imperative, not matter how confused the pre-negotiations have been.
During the pandemic we have been encouraged to buy local in solidarity with those struggling. Whether with local farmers, local restaurants via takeout or other local businesses, helping those closest to us in difficult times makes a great deal of sense. But are there limits to that feeling of solidarity? Several recent headlines should call into question whether we should continue to favor the local. If we have choices, should we continue with businesses that go against the law and our values?
I received a photo from a friend welcoming the month of April. Indeed, there is much to be thankful for at the end of March and the beginning of April. March 19, 20 or 21 - depending on the year - is the official beginning of spring. It is the moment when the hours of sunshine are equal to the time of darkness, the vernal equinox, and the start of more daylight. This year the weather at the end of March and the beginning of April in Geneva has been fabulous. Longer sunlight and gorgeous weather have made this year’s end of March a welcome relief from Geneva’s cold, foggy winter. Welcome April!