Communications

Access to the Archives: New documents on Switzerland’s foreign policy in 1991


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On January 1st, 2022, the confidentiality period for the Federal Files of 1991 will run out. The newly accessible documents inform about the controversial conclusion of the EEA Agreement as well as about the foreign-political challenges Switzerland was facing at the beginning of the Gulf War of 1991 and the Yugoslav Wars as well as during the dissolution of the Soviet Union.   

«Europe is a part of ourselves, and we are a part of her. That is how it has always been. That is how it  will always be.» In front of a great number of guests from Switzerland and other countries, who had been invited to Sils in the Engadine in September, 1991, in the context of celebrating Switzerland’s 700th anniversary, President of the Swiss Confederation Flavio Cotti presented himself as a convinced European (Doc. 37, dodis.ch/57668). The apodictic firmness of his positioning, however, is in stark contrast to the dynamics of the developments of European policy in 1991. «In the year of the anniversary, the issue of the future relations with Europe appeared more uncertain than ever, and in this concern the Federal Council was more split than ever», says Sacha Zala, Director of the Dodis Research Centre, while referring to the recent volume of Diplomatic Documents of Switzerland (DDS) where the Swiss foreign policy of the year 1991 is documented in detail, by way of selected documents. Numerous further contemporary testimonies, which may now, on January 1st, 2022, be published after their legally fixed period of confidentiality will have run out, present 1991 as a sobering year which posed new challenges also for Switzerland, in particularly after the promising turning point of the year 1990.   

«Becoming a satellite» as a result of the EEA Agreement?

Throughout that entire year, the European integration remained to be the most urgent topic. A glimmer of light in this context was the conclusion, by Federal Councillor Adolf Ogi, of the transit agreement with the European Community (EC) (Doc. 51, dodis.ch/58168). Less successful were the negotiations on the European Economic Area (EEA). If in 1990 the EEA «compromise» seemed to have been the only possible solution, in 1991 there was no agreement at all among the Federal Council. In March, the President of the Swiss Confederation, Cotti, made the suggestion to his fellow Councillor, Jean-Pascal Delamuraz, who headed the Federal Department of Economic Affairs and was the chief negotiator together with Foreign Minster René Felber, to break off the «humiliating» negotiations on the EEA as soon as possible, in favour of applying for immediate accession (Doc.  9, dodis.ch/57510). The disagreement among the Federal Council was also symbolised by the controversial debate at the Federal Council’s meeting of April 17th, 1991: whereas Minister of Finance Otto Stich was convinced that «a bad agreement can never be considered a step in the right direction» and that the EEA as it existed at that time meant «Switzerland becoming a satellite», Foreign Minister Felber emphasized the «many positive aspects» and the «certain advantages» even of an agreement which was imbalanced to Switzerland’s disadvantage. For Defence Minister Kaspar Villiger, on the other hand, the country was on its way towards being a «colonial state with an autonomy statute» (Doc. 13, dodis.ch/57331).  

International pressure

In the course of talks with their European partners the Federal Councillors made several attempts to give expression to their discontent about the way in which the negotiations were running. German Foreign Minister Genscher replied staunchly that «one’s own national interests could be best supported» only if a country was an EC member (Doc. 16, dodis.ch/57028). Even more critical towards Switzerland standing apart was the statement by French President Mitterrand who pointed out that banks alone were no sufficient foundation for a civilisation (Doc. 25, dodis.ch/58092), whereas EC chief negotiator Krenzler even spoke of a «modernity deficit» of Switzerland which could only be «corrected» by Switzerland joining the EC respectively the EEA waiting room (Doc. 27, dodis.ch/58039). Only immediately before the meeting of the EC and EFTA ministers in Luxemburg where, according to Switzerland, either «a breakthrough was to be enforced or the failure of the negations was to be stated» (Doc.  44, dodis.ch/58388), the Federal Council made its landmark decision. In the course of the night to October 22nd, 1991, Federal Councillors Felber and Delamuraz accepted the negotiation results concerning the EEA agreement and declared Switzerland joining the EC the strategic goal. Yet still: «The vote on the EEA has not yet been won», the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Council of States anticipated soberly: «There is still gigantic work to be done if the people are to accept this agreement» (Doc.  56, dodis.ch/58525).   

Dramatic developments in East Europe

In 1991, also the developments in Europe’s East showed unchecked dynamics. Under the «maxim of solidary co-responsibility», the Federal Council passed a new Eastern Aid loan of 800 million CHF. Now also Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia and the USSR were supposed to benefit from Swiss financial aid (Doc.  35, dodis.ch/57522). The Soviet Union, however, was to be non-existent by the end of 1991: with the founding of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in December, the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics ceased to exist. Remarkably Switzerland, usually rather reluctant when it came to issues of recognition, counted among the first countries to announce the recognition of the Soviet successor republics (Doc.  61, dodis.ch/57514). In Switzerland, the dramatic developments in Yugoslavia affected most of all the way of dealing with the considerable share of Yugoslav migrants. In the context of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), however also in the course of unilateral moderation initiatives, Switzerland attempted to contribute to de-escalation on the Balkans (Doc.  50, dodis.ch/58114).  

«Good offices» in the context of a new world order

Also in other regions of the world Switzerland attempted to contribute to pacification. When, shortly before the beginning of the Gulf War, in January, 1991, the Foreign Ministers of the USA and Iraq were meeting one last time in Geneva for talks, once again the Federal Council offered «good offices» and support of the mediation process (Doc.  2, dodis.ch/57332). In the context of the Lebanon conflict, Swiss diplomacy supported the release of hostages and prisoners (Doc.  33, dodis.ch/58395), and in Afghanistan it attempted to contribute to a political solution of the messy situation by creating a new negotiation format (Doc.  29, dodis.ch/57737). «It is remarkable how actively Swiss foreign policy was involved, alongside the United Nations yet indeed pursuing its own ambitions, in the settlement or prevention of conflicts in quite different regions of the world», says Dodis Director Zala. Switzerland’s search for its new place in the new world order came along with increasingly participating in multi-lateral panels. For example, during its autumn session the parliament passed Switzerland’s accession to the Bretton Woods institutions (Doc.  40, dodis.ch/58258).  

Economic relations and development aid

Trips to and visits from economically dynamic regions outside Europe were meant to avoid any one-sided focus of Switzerland on the European integration. Economic topics were the focus of Federal Councillor Delamuraz’s visit to South Korea and Singapore (Doc.  10, dodis.ch/57647), the same held for Federal Councillor Felber’s trip to India (Doc.  47, dodis.ch/57398), Secretary of State Jacobi’s visit to Beijing (Doc.  21, dodis.ch/57590) or for welcoming Argentinian Foreign Minister Di Tella to Berne (Doc. dodis.ch/58462). A new policy by the Agency for Development and Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid provided the foundation of entering into dialogue with partners from developing countries (Doc.  28, dodis.ch/58718). Starting out from a petition by aid organisations, development cooperation was also prominently positioned in the context of the celebrations on the occasion of Switzerland’s 700th anniversary. By help of a highly symbolic fund of 700 million CHF, the Federal Council intended to, on the one hand, fund debt relief measures for poorer developing countries and to contribute to environmental programmes and projects of global significance on the other (Doc. 59, dodis.ch/57999).  

Youth Session demands a «solidary Switzerland»

Finally, a solidary Switzerland was also demanded by the participants in Switzerland’s first Youth Session, happening in the context of the celebrations on the occasion of the 700th anniversary. «The young people roughly sketched a foreign-political action programme which was in line with the then common mood of opening up and awakening», explains Dodis Director Zala. Concerning Switzerland’s then and future foreign policy, they demanded Switzerland to act swiftly and as global pioneer: «We do care about what is happening in other countries of this world» (Doc.  43, dodis.ch/58000).