The Ambassador: Markus Leitner

The Swiss Ambassador on how regular referenda and a devolved government embeds Switzerland's politics with accountability and rooted decisionmaking

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Markus Leitner was appointed Swiss ambassador to the United Kingdom in August 2021. He has worked in South Africa and Chile and is a former ambassador to Iran and Egypt. Interview by Lucy Kenningham.

Can you pinpoint a highlight of your career so far? I’ve been lucky in the timings of my placements. I was in South Africa during Thabo Mbeki’s presidency. It was an optimistic period:  Nelson Mandela was still alive, prices for resource exports were high. It was the same in Chile – the copper price was high and the country was thriving. 

Egypt, though, was a different story. I handed my letter of credentials to President Morsi who was in prison two weeks later. It was a dramatic and drastic start, and a very uncertain time. 

I started in Iran at the same time as the new American president (Trump) took the US out of the nuclear agreement, changing things dramatically. It was an extremely challenging yet interesting few years. 

Perhaps the real highlight is still to come? I’ve already had one in London. When you present your letters of credence to the Queen, you are taken in a coach to Buckingham Palace. Every head of mission has a 15-minutes exchange with the Queen. When you reflect that she has received 16 of my predecessors in her 74 years as monarch, you get a feeling of the historic dimensions.

You initially worked in banking (perhaps explaining your reference to commodity prices). Does this give you a particular insight as an ambassador? I do think it was a factor for my appointment to this job. Switzerland is the fourth largest investor in the UK and a major trading partner. Now that the UK has left the EU, it’s natural that we work together on financial services, for example. We are two huge hubs for finance and innovation.

How much interaction do you have with our Parliament? I recently had a dinner in parliament with our British-Swiss Chamber of Commerce. There’s also a highly active APPG for Switzerland. We also have something very special: the parliamentary ski trip. As ambassador I will take part too, though not in the downhill race! 

I recently went to Parliament with our Foreign Policy Committee, and accompanied them to Edinburgh and Belfast. With the UK being outside the EU, it’s in our mutual interest to compare notes on ideas and strategies. 

Switzerland has a unique relationship with the EU. Are there lessons here for the UK? Switzerland has never been a member, but we have over 100 agreements with the EU. Our starting point thus differs to the UK’s, but we face similar issues, such as our access to the Horizon Europe research programme. It’s not about Switzerland “teaching” the UK.

Switzerland is not in the EU, but it is in Schengen. Has Brexit affected Switzerland or UK-Swiss relations? Brexit has had an impact on our negotiations with the EU Commission, which has to find a way to deal with third countries that are not en route to becoming members. They look at the UK and Switzerland and probably don’t want to give one advantage over the other – although as I’ve said, we’ve come from very different places.

Can you give us a flavour of the Swiss reaction to Brexit? The Swiss have followed Brexit with a lot of interest. It’s
based on a referendum – and we know a lot about those in Switzerland! At the same time, the Swiss will not comment on another country’s referendum decisions. We don’t like this either when it happens to us!

How often do the Swiss hold referenda? There’s a national referendum every three months and it’s just a normal feature of life. In fact they’re held more often even than that. There are referenda on the federal (national) level, the canton (county) level, and the communal level.

What are the implications for Parliament? You always need a solid majority if you want to bring through a law. Parliamentarians need to find broad consensus on legislation because otherwise your opponents can collect signatures and force through a referendum.

That might limit the Parliament’s importance in terms of decision-making compared to the UK. But it is key in terms of shaping the debate and finding compromise for new legislation. 

Is the participation rate very high? At the last referendum, it was 66 per cent. Everyone is registered automatically which means that 66 per cent of the entire adult population really is a considerable turnout. Not every referendum has such a high participation rate, but we try to make it easy for the population to participate in democratic processes.

Is this a uniquely Swiss way of running things? There are other countries with elements of direct democracy, but ours is very specific. Referenda and popular initiatives were not set out in our Constitution back in 1848, but have evolved over time, making our political system unique. 

What I think is interesting is that our referenda are always binding. You see referenda in many different countries but often they are a consultation. In Switzerland people know that their vote counts, their vote decides, and they do it regularly. 

How does this affect the Swiss’s relationship with politics? You follow political issues more closely and politicians have to explain to the people what they are voting on. The general notion is that your government is at the people’s service, and not the contrary.

So do you think there’s more accountability? That’s the beauty of the system. It may be slower because you don’t have executive decisions, but the element of accountability is higher and you end up with better-rooted decisions. You’ve gone through a process of consensus building, explaining and finding compromises.

Your democracy is also highly devolved. How does that affect relations with other countries? Swiss cantons have sovereignty unless they have delegated it to the federal level. They have relations with neighbouring regions in France, Germany, Austria or Italy, but foreign policy is in the competence of the national Federal Council. At the same time, we see a growing popular interest in foreign affairs. We recently had a referendum on a free trade agreement for the first time – with Indonesia.

Thinking of our 2016 referendum, popular voting on something as technical as a free trade agreement is hard to imagine. The debate focused on palm oil and the vote in favour was surprisingly narrow. We recently voted on a Covid law which also generated heated debate. Some of the so-called technical issues can quickly become quite political.

Our foreign policy approach post Brexit has been promoted as “Global Britain”. How would you describe Switzerland’s approach to foreign policy? We have three long-standing principles: universality, multilateralism and neutrality. Universality means we want to have good relations with everybody – they won’t all be the same, but they should all be good. Multilateralism means we are keen to host international organisations, work to keep them relevant and effective, and invest in them. Neutrality is a key element to maintain our independence. 

Talk of international organisations brings me to Davos. Is it a Swiss event, or an international event that happens to take place in your country? The World Economic Forum has changed over the years from a managers’ retreat into a global event. But ultimately it is held at a Swiss resort and has a lot of what we would call “Swissness”. The Swiss president always opens the event. 

It’s still the best place to grab somebody influential and say, “Let’s have a quick coffee!” The confined space and snowy Alpine setting encourages these interactions. When it’s cold outside, you get closer together. So I think there are features that make Davos unique, and the Swiss attach a lot of importance to it. 

Some people think that Davos and similar big global events are becoming less important. We just had Cop26 in Glasgow. I still feel – after many Zoom meetings – that personal contact is very valuable. I hope that the World Economic Forum can take place as currently planned.  

You mention Covid – as we speak, the rates of infection in German-speaking Switzerland are dramatically higher than those in French-speaking Switzerland. Can you explain this? One year ago it was the exact opposite, so it’s difficult to explain. Switzerland is one country, even if we have different languages, and sometimes we have regional differences!

How does being a multilingual country affect Switzerland? Multilingualism enriches us, though it’s really just one identity of many.  Identity can also be related to religion, culture, traditions and more. With such a mix, you’re always going to be in the majority with regards to something and in the minority too. This means there’s a strong emphasis on inclusivity. This is partly to do with multilingualism, but the Swiss never look at people in terms of language only. We see that identity is far more multifaceted.

How does it play out in politics? We live up to the democratic principle, which is to say that the majority decides. But we don’t just want to win. We want to take the minority with us, because we know that next time, next referendum, we might find ourselves in the minority! It’s embedded in us not to operate under a winner takes all mentality; in any situation we’re focused on compromise. 

1st February 2022