Why the Swiss ambassador to the EU is the man of the moment. Plus: Brazil's embassy in North Korea and the Czechs' man in Vietnam pulls a pint.
The Swiss ambassador to the EU has only been in his post since September but Urs Bucher is already one of the most sought-after diplomats in Brussels. It is not the sleek USM furniture and tasteful art in his mission that draws visitors: it is his experience negotiating a new relationship with partner states.
Since Britain’s vote to leave the EU, many have been looking to Switzerland as a potential template for what happens next. It is one of a handful of models of how a European country outside the bloc might trade and interact with Brussels. What’s more, a 2014 referendum in which Swiss voters told their government to impose quotas on EU workers offers obvious parallels with the UK, which is currently wrestling with limiting freedom of movement while still enjoying trade ties.
After two years of negotiations, in December the Swiss parliament voted on a new bill that gives unemployed people priority for certain jobs ‒ and it appears to have satisfied the eurocrats in Brussels. Despite a positive outcome, Bucher is reluctant to offer negotiating tips to the British. “The UK has among the best, most brilliant diplomats so I would definitely not try to give them any advice,” he says with a laugh.
Bucher does, however, believe that EU nations could learn from the unique Swiss model of democracy where much decision-making is made at the cantonal and communal levels and referendums are held three or four times a year.
With people across Europe feeling alienated from decision-making and the centres of power, governments need to find ways to reconnect citizens with the political process.
Instead of security checks, expect to get a stein of pilsner and a hearty sausage at the Czech consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. Hoa Vien Bräuhaus, a Czech-style beer hall and brewery, is run by Ngo Hong Chuyen, who doubles as honorary consul-general to the Czech Republic. His job is to welcome delegates and help out a hapless tourist or two.
When Brazil announced new diplomatic ties with North Korea in 2009, a clutch of North Korean foreign ministry officials could be forgiven for breaking out a bottle of black-market champagne. They would be swapping Pyongyang for Brasília; the world’s most closed society for the land of sun, sea, samba and soccer. Arguably less excited were those heading in the other direction.
Cleiton Schenkel, the only Brazilian in North Korea, tries not to see it that way. The 45-year-old chargé d’affaires at the Brazilian embassy in Pyongyang admits that life in the country known as the “hermit kingdom” is a little different from home but still finds things to enjoy. “Contrary to expectations, North Koreans are not all serious,” he says. “In fact, like Brazilians they are very friendly and affable, with plenty of smiles.”
Brazil and North Korea may not have much in common but, as with many of Brazil’s partner states, there is one thing. “They love football,” says Schenkel. “And so do I. They know the name of many Brazilian football players. They even asked me about a future sports co-operation between both countries.”
Brazil is the only country in the Americas with an embassy in both Koreas – Cuba is present only in North Korea, while the others have embassies solely in South Korea. Schenkel says there is scope for trade between his home and host nation to improve from a fairly miniscule €17m in 2015.
Brazilian embassies have a reputation for hosting great parties but in the nine months that Schenkel has been in Pyongyang he has yet to arrange an event – the diplomatic party scene is somewhat limited. Though with an eight-month-old son, he and his wife appreciate there is an advantage to the peace and quiet.