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Leading by example

Switzerland — Ambassador

“One of the reasons I love my job is that there is no such thing as a normal week or even a normal day,” says Jane Owen, UK’s ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein, over tea in her residence in Bern. Her role involves talking to partners across the country, be it officials in Bern, pharmaceutical companies in Basel, bankers in Zürich or firms in smaller towns. “My car is my second office.”

She’s been busier than ever in recent months. In the run-up to Brexit, Switzerland has strived to ensure seamless trade with the UK. In February the two countries signed a post-Brexit agreement enabling them to maintain trade on preferential terms but Owen emphasises that their partnership goes beyond economics. The UK can learn from the experience of European countries outside the EU. “The single factor that they all have in common in their relationship with the EU is that they want it to be win-win,” she says. “If you look at Switzerland’s own relationship with the EU you can see that, over the years, it has been very mutually beneficial.” Inspired by a careers event when she was 16, Owen studied Russian, French and German at Cambridge. “I wanted to find a career where I could live overseas, get under the skin of a country and understand what makes people tick. Then you can start to build bridges,” she says. After joining the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1987 she started Japanese language training, first at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and then in Kamakura, Japan. This led to two postings in Tokyo, with Hanoi in between. After serving as director of UK trade and investment in New Delhi she became ambassador to Norway in 2010.

In June 500 guests will gather in the garden of her residence for the Queen’s birthday party. “It’s an opportunity to celebrate everything that’s good in the relationship between the UK and Switzerland,” she says. “Sometimes we forget that we want to be part of a strong Europe. We have a massive contribution to make.”


Speak easy

Canada & The UK — press freedom

Amid allegations of fake news and a global spike in violence against journalists in 2018 – most notably the assassination of Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi – the media is under attack. To address the threat, Canada and the UK will co-host a summit in London this July on protecting the freedom of the press and journalists themselves. It will bring together media, civic and political actors to discuss how to combat challenges such as censorship and detainment. With state leaders such as Donald Trump, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Rodrigo Duterte cracking down on journalists, it’s heartening to see the championing of press freedom.


Line of defence

Israel — Missiles

The US’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) anti-ballistic missile system has proven as capable of attracting controversy as it has of bringing down warheads. In 2017, China pulled out of a trilateral summit with South Korea and Japan in protest at Seoul’s plans to host a Thaad battery (the weapons were eventually deployed).

A new deployment of the Thaad system to Israel – initially as part of a month-long drill – is likely to provoke comparable resentment among regional players. The Thaad system in question, from the US army’s 11th Air Defence Artillery Brigade, joins an already formidable array of Israeli air-defence weapons, including the Israeli-built Iron Dome and David’s Sling systems, and the joint Israeli-American Arrow. The question that’s obviously prompted is what the Thaad can do that the others cannot.

“It’s part of a multi-layered system,” says Yossi Mekelberg, senior consulting research fellow with the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House. “From Israel’s perspective, the battlefield has changed a lot. The problem is now mainly rockets and missiles: low-flying, high-flying, short-range, medium-range, long-range. And they can come from Gaza, from Hezbollah in Lebanon, or Hezbollah and Iran in Syria if they can establish themselves there, or from Iran directly.”

Israel’s air-defence needs are not in doubt: Hezbollah alone is estimated to have some 100,000 missiles stationed on Israel’s northern border. But it’s Iran that may be the intended audience for Thaad’s arrival in Israel. “It’s symbolic as well as practical,” says Mekelberg. “If it was purely practical you wouldn’t have to announce it. It’s a direct message to Iran that the US is behind Israel.”

It also seems a direct message to Iran’s other regional rivals – and, therefore,Thaad’s potential market. Thaad has already been sold to the UAE; deals are also in progress with Oman and Saudi Arabia.


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  • The Foreign Desk