The EU’s ambassador to Switzerland on tough talks, Germany and Morocco don’t see eye to eye and the UN’s former climate chief on global co-operation.
The EU’s ambassador to Switzerland, Petros Mavromichalis, has been based in Bern for just over six months after living in Brussels for 32 years. He’s there at a fraught time as the EU and Switzerland enter the last stage of discussions over a framework agreement – covering everything from free movement to mutual recognition of industrial standards – that will dictate their future relationship. They struck a deal in 2018 but, after opening up the agreement for national debate, Switzerland is requesting clarifications. Mavromichalis believes that with enough goodwill on both sides the accord will be signed.
After six months, what’s your outlook on the future relationship between the EU and Switzerland?
The outlook is positive because Switzerland is a European country to the bone. It is in the middle of Europe, we speak the same languages, we have the same culture and we share the same values. So the geography is unlikely to change and neither will the cultural outlook. We have to find a way to continue strengthening this relationship. This is where the framework agreement comes in. You could qualify it as a bump in the road but a fairer description is that we are at a crossroads. We need the agreement to enable the relationship to flourish.
The Swiss want to negotiate but the EU doesn’t. How do you find common ground?
We’ve always said that we would not renegotiate but we were ready to clarify any ambiguity wherever there is room for interpretation, which often happens with agreements. So let’s see what it is that the Swiss want. These negotiations don’t take place in public – I’m not personally involved – but I suspect there is a small margin of manoeuvre. It all depends what the expectations of the Federal Council are. If the expectation is that we will reopen issues that were agreed upon, then, obviously, that will not fly.
What if there is no agreement?
It would be a negative outcome but we shouldn’t overstate the impact as the ties that link us to Switzerland are unlikely to change. So we will need to find a way to do things. We won’t suddenly impose sanctions but there wouldn’t be any new market- access agreements and existing ones might not be renewed. The EU and Switzerland will remain friends but business will get more complicated and costly.
We take a closer look at a case of diplomacy gone wrong.
Who vs who: Germany vs Morocco
What it’s about: Western Sahara, the geopolitical anomaly across Morocco’s southern border. The status of the former Spanish colony has long been contested by Morocco and a liberation movement that calls the region the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Morocco is irritated that Germany and the EU won’t echo Donald Trump’s recognition of its sovereignty over Western Sahara and has suspended communication.
What it’s really about: Western Sahara is a big part of it but Morocco is also grumpy about not being invited to last year’s Berlin Conference on Libya and about Bremen’s state parliament hoisting the Sahrawi Republic’s flag in February.
Likely resolution: Further mild harrumphing, though not too much – late last year, Germany released €1.39bn for Morocco in support of coronavirus relief and other reforms.
Perpetually rancorous India and Pakistan have been speaking to each other constructively about one thing: water. The Permanent Indus Commission, established in 1960 to manage the river systems that flow between the countries, has convened for the first time in three years in New Delhi to discuss Pakistan’s objections to aspects of planned Indian hydroelectric plants. This thaw is perhaps a recognition that conflict serves neither country but it also reflects Pakistan’s appreciation of shifting geopolitics. “This means more to Pakistan due to the cpec [China-Pakistan Economic Corridor] and its economic necessity,” says Shruti Kapila of the Faculty of History at Cambridge University. “For India it means its leaders can claim, especially to the US, that it’s giving peace a chance. There’s no real economic issue at stake for India.”
Christiana Figueres is former climate chief of the UN, where she helped spearhead the discussions that led to the historic 2015 Paris Agreement. She co-authored the 2020 book The Future We Choose: The Stubborn Optimist’s Guide to the Climate Crisis with Tom Rivett-Carnac and she advises organisations on co-operation and sustainability. Here she talks to monocle about why multilateralism is more important than ever.
You have been credited with pioneering “collaborative diplomacy”. How would you define this term?
There are several levels to it. One is to truly understand who has a stake in these issues and bring them closer to the process, which carries the message of “we’re all in this together”. We do not see the national government representative holding full responsibility; other stakeholders can also contribute. Also, usually we think that diplomacy is necessary when there is confrontation and it’s necessary to bring the confronting parties to some common ground. But under climate change, it was my intent to soften the edges of the confrontation and strengthen the power of collaboration. There were many differences of opinion and we had to work through all of those. But the underlying tone, the fabric upon which the diplomacy is woven, is a fabric of collaboration for the long-term benefit of everyone.
What, in your experience, do politicians get wrong when it comes to global co-operation?
Two things. Short-termism – when you limit yourself and lose perspective of the long-term, then you quite often form incorrect conclusions as to what your real interests are. That’s understandable because, at least in democratic countries, there is a short electoral cycle. But politicians need to be able to take the longer term into account – not easy. The other thing: we are often so intent on standing our ground that we leave little space to ask questions and truly listen. [Listening and thinking long-term] is increasingly necessary. In the 21st century, many of the issues that in the past have had local or national consequences now have global consequences. The best example is coronavirus.
“There is a short electoral cycle. But politicians need to be able to take the longer term into account – not easy”
The pandemic has demonstrated that people around the world are, mostly, willing to change their daily behaviour for the common good. Do you think that there is a lesson here for policymakers who might otherwise have hesitated to consider laws that address climate change?
None of us had any idea of the oncoming tsunami, nor were any of us prepared to conceive of the required change in daily behaviour – whether travel or work or personal interactions with friends and family. I’m hoping that one of the lessons is that we have exponentially moved into a world that is much more global. Now, the one thing that is different in the context [of the pandemic] is that some of the changes were quite detrimental to our mental health and to our relationships. I am hoping that if we truly understand the threat of climate change, we can change our behaviour and realise that those changes are actually beneficial – not detrimental – to our quality of life.
You’ve said that there are signs that people are now thinking on a global scale. Is there an example of something that’s made you optimistic about countries working together again in the future?
There is the new attitude of the US, where they have been pretty clear that they are assuming responsibility [with regards to climate change] at home, in part because it’s a huge opportunity to create jobs and strengthen the economy. They have also been very clear about their international agenda and their willingness to reach out to the countries that can contribute to addressing climate change in a timely fashion. It’s not coincidental that the person who has been put at the head of these international efforts is the former secretary of state [John Kerry] because he understands the importance of international and multilateral collaboration. The new administration is the best example of the change towards a much more collaborative approach.
Illustrator: Rina Jost. Images: Alamy, Alessandro della Valle