Switzerland is known for punctual trains that you can set your clock by, but few know that the country itself is a microcosm of a timekeeping device, says Andreas Maager, the outgoing Swiss consul general in Atlanta.
Mr. Maager says Switzerland is like a watch, one of its most famous exports, and not just because of a manufacturing sector known for precision.
The metaphor extends to its people, who synchronize across lines of race, language and class to keep a country of 8.3 million that prizes its traditions moving forward in a fast-changing world.
Switzerland requires 12 years of residency before one can even apply for citizenship. That means immigrants, while accounting for roughly a quarter of the population, are largely limited to those with the skills needed to keep the country’s advanced economy running.
“We really rely on foreign labor,” Mr. Maager said.
The Swiss citizenry itself, he said, is more diverse than people give it credit for, speaking four national languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh. With government personnel communicating in German or French, it makes things interesting for diplomats communicating with the capital in Bern.
Alpine terrain isolates some parts of the country, and not every Swiss person has the same access to opportunities. But from the banker to the villager, everyone contributes. And government does its best to take that into account, Mr. Maager said, focusing on the watch metaphor.
“You have big wheels, and you have small wheels, but if the big wheel wants to run, the smaller wheel also has to turn. But if the smaller wheel stops, the whole thing breaks down and the clock stops. It’s not more complicated than this.”
He learned that lesson partly through mandatory military service in the 1970s, where he rubbed shoulders with people of diverse backgrounds from other parts of his homeland. He met one fellow soldier who had never been on a train before.
“He was afraid to go into the train because he said, ‘How does the train know where I want to go out?’ It was amazing — such stories in such a developed country.”
In a wide-ranging Consular Conversation with Global Atlanta at the law firm of Miller and Martin that served as one of his final engagements after nearly four years in Atlanta, Mr. Maager shared this and other stories from his life as diplomat.
He also laid out how Switzerland is thinking about its place in Europe as it balances its hallmark independence with the need for economic integration.
Switzerland has always retained the fiercely held diplomatic neutrality which makes it a go-between for nations in conflict and a hub for the multilateral organizations that have flocked to Geneva.
More recently, though, it has deepened economic ties with the EU. It’s long been a party to the European Free Trade Association and in 2005 joined the Schengen area allowing free movement of people from one European country to another.
That said, Switzerland has no ambitions to tarnish its centuries-long traditions with attempts to accede to the bloc, Mr. Maager said, and the Brexit negotiations are in some ways illustrating why.
He stopped short of calling Switzerland a model for the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU, though some have seen just that in the way that Switzerland has oriented itself toward Europe without the entanglements of membership.
But Mr. Maager did say the only way forward for democracies is openness to trade and mobility, despite the fact that they’ve seen a rise in populist anger that has triggered political backlashes.
“The 21st century is the century of movement and of people going places,” he said in response to a question of whether he was worried about protectionist rhetoric. “I‘m sure the ones not moving — sooner or later there is a price to pay.”
Switzerland itself is facing this balancing act. Access to labor from southern European nations like Spain and Italy has been vital for the Swiss economy, as has its openness to high-skilled immigration from Germany, France and beyond. Some 380,000 people commute into Switzerland for work every day.
But domestic politics have impacted international relationships. In early 2014, the Swiss People’s Party, which opposes free movement, introduced a referendum to impose quotas on workers from within the EU. It passed, but in late 2016, the country walked back those restrictions amid threats to Swiss access to the EU single market. New rules adopted by Switzerland’s parliament required companies to advertise domestically and interview Swiss citizens before bringing in foreigners, but they removed the quotas that constituted a sticking point with the EU.
While acknowledging that there are dissenting voices, Mr. Maager maintained that joining the Schengen area in 2005 was a “great achievement.”
The famous Swiss referenda sometimes create conundrums like this, but the alternative –less democracy — is much worse, he said.
“If you don’t have democratic rights, fight for it. If you have them, try to use them,” he said.
U.S. Focus: Investment and Vocational Training
When it comes to the Swiss messaging in the U.S., the intricacies of its dealings with the EU take a back seat.
One hot topic in the bilateral relationship has been bank secrecy. The anonymity Switzerland’s private banks have prized since they were established largely by the French in the 18th century has created tensions in a modern world facing money laundering and terror finance. Changes to these policies have led to automatic information-sharing with the U.S. but have caused some traditionalists to pine for the good old days of hidden accounts.
As a small country aiming to make its splash in the U.S., Switzerland’s public diplomacy efforts focused on less contentious issues: showcasing its status as an important investor in the U.S. and promoting apprenticeships as a cure for the American skills gap.
“When you are coming as Switzerland to the U.S., I think you can’t send out too many messages,” he said.
A high point for the effort was the 2014 State of the Union address, when then-President Barack Obama praised the German model, which is closely related to the Swiss and Austrian versions. After that, governors and even Jill Biden, then-Vice President Joe Biden’s wife, visited the country to learn more.
“That’s the biggest push you can get,” Mr. Maager said.
During the week of the Consular Conversation, Swiss Economy Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann visited Washington to meet with President Donald Trump’s daughter and adviser, Ivanka Trump, to continue the momentum.
The Swiss model includes apprenticeships in 230 fields, not all blue-collar as might be expected. At 14, students select from fields such as business, retail, health care, manufacturing and more. At 16, they begin a three to four year program including classes at school and work at a company. graduating at 19 or 20 with a federal degree.
On the investment front, Georgia is a perfect example of the strong bilateral ties, hosting operations of Swiss companies like Novartis, ABB, CreditSuisse, Kuehne & Nagel, Alcon, Schindler, Sigvaris, SITA and many more.
Despite its small size, the Swiss impact is outsized, accounting for 12,200 jobs, 6 percent of the 207,500 supported by foreign companies in the state, according to figures compiled by the Swiss embassy in Washington. That makes it No. 7 by employment creation, just behind France and Canada. Georgia exports in goods and services to Switzerland account for about 6,500 more positions.
The Swiss Business Hub at the Atlanta consulate helps connect companies and governments with more information about vocational training and investment ties.
Mr. Maager has taken up a new post at the Swiss consulate in Cape Town, South Africa. His successor has yet to be announced.
The next Consular Conversation will be held at Miller & Martin on Aug. 24 with Peruvian Consul General Miguel Aleman as the guest. Learn more and sign up here.