Roberto Balzaretti: “You have to be especially careful with your relationship with others. 🇧🇷
From March 2022 until December 2023, the Swiss Ambassador to France, Roberto Balzaretti, cycled along the roads of France in stages. Twelve stages lasting several days and getaways lasting a few hours were conceived with one objective: to get to know the French regions and communities that shape the Franco-Swiss bilateral relationship on a daily basis.
The ambassador traveled to our region at the end of October, to the peninsula and to Saint-Nazaire, where he joined a delegation of Swiss companies active in naval engineering, to visit the port of Nantes-Saint-Nazaire and Chantiers de l ‘ Atlantic. He also stopped in Guérande to visit the XSun company, located near the La Baule-Guérande fire station, a partner of the Swiss company Maxon, which specializes in solar-powered drones.
Roberto Balzaretti, Ambassador of Switzerland to France and Monaco, answers our questions.
Kernews: You decided to cross France by bicycle: how did this idea come about?
Roberto Balzaretti: It’s an idea we had last year at the embassy. We wanted to leave Paris, which is a very beautiful city where we are in contact with French political authorities, but we wanted to get to know France better and facilitate opportunities for cooperation between France and Switzerland in the field of industry, science, research and culture. We also wanted to meet Swiss nationals who have been living in France, sometimes for a long time. It’s not very original, every ambassador has to do it, but we wanted to do it on a motorcycle. So I took an e-bike, to do it fast enough, but also slow enough to get a better feel for the territory. Nothing better than a bicycle to discover the regions we cross.
And it’s Swiss technology…
It’s a racing bike. It has a very innovative engine that is manufactured by Maxon, a Swiss company that has a large branch in the suburbs of Lyon. These are people who make micromotors for surgery, for insulin pumps and pacemakers, but also for precision robotics. They made the engines that power the various contraptions on the planet Mars now. So it’s a top company. It is the result of excellent industrial and scientific cooperation between Switzerland and France.
Unlike a distant country where you need to get information from the embassy to do your studies or set up your business, Switzerland is so close that cooperation is often done directly. What is the role of an embassy for a country like Switzerland?
I readily admit that most relationships happen without embassy intervention and without the embassy even knowing about it. In our conception of the role of the State, this is very good: we set up the necessary framework, close agreements with the countries, in particular with the European Union, which is a very important partner, and then, afterwards, we let it go. There are over 200,000 Swiss living in France, there are 185,000 French people living in Switzerland and there are 200,000 French cross-border workers who come to work in Switzerland every day. All this deserves careful framing and the embassy remains the counterpart of a government in the host state. We maintain daily relations with French administrations at all levels. We have relationships with the regions and this administrative fabric serves to support things that sometimes happen by themselves, and sometimes don’t. Think about the relationship you have with your neighbor: it’s usually very friendly and easy going, but it’s also where there can be the most potential for friction. It is especially necessary to take care of his relationship with the neighbor, much more than if it were someone located several hundred kilometers from your home. The economy, science, culture, research, everything that makes an important relationship between two friendly countries, deserves that we are present in the territory and that we monitor everything correctly.
There are still many economic brakes due to Switzerland’s non-membership of the European Union: where are we?
We decided, by popular vote, not to join an extended multilateral framework. It was 1992 and the European Economic Area foreshadowed membership of the European Union. The Swiss people refused this deal. Since then, we have concluded around twenty very important bilateral agreements with the European Union, which make it possible to cover the essentials of a relationship between neighbours. But, as you rightly say, Switzerland is not a member of the European Union. Therefore, certain disciplines, rights or obligations do not concern us. Today, I think that a popular vote to join the European Union would have very little chance of success. I believe that beyond the bilateral framework, relations between Switzerland and the Member States of the European Union are of an incomparable intensity. We export 55% of what we produce, we are the sixth partner of the European Union, we exchange 1 billion a day in goods and 1 billion a day in services, so some things are undoubtedly more complicated. It is a sovereign choice, but we have to deal with it and find other ways. We need to promote bilateral relations more intensely, as, for now, there is no way to convince the Swiss sovereign people that accession would be the best option.
What are the top thoughts you hear most often in your career? Do French SMEs think of Switzerland in their export strategy?
A distinction must be made between the areas closest to the border and the rest. In Auvergne, Rhône-Alpes, Burgundy, Franche-Comté or in the Alsace region, we are in a common area. We know each other well, we know the opportunities, but also the administrative difficulties. But, it’s true, as soon as you move a little further from the border, people are surprised to learn that the market is not very complicated to penetrate and that it is a country with a flourishing economy. 🇧🇷 There are many French companies opening branches in Switzerland, it’s a virtuous circle and the younger generation does it quite easily. Also, the purpose of my trip to France is to explain this. For example, I was accompanied by a delegation of Swiss companies in advanced technologies for aeronautics or the naval sector. We visit the Saint-Nazaire shipyards and the port of Saint-Nazaire, the contacts are excellent and this can benefit everyone. The Pays de la Loire region has an SME economy very similar to ours and there are certainly synergies. To do this, you have to give yourself time and meet people.
You have many start-ups in Switzerland, but the old cliché from the country of watches and chocolate remains: what are the received ideas that you want to fight?
Perhaps this cliché exists in the general public, but why not: as long as the cliché is about quality products, it’s good. Come on holiday to the Swiss Alps, it’s really beautiful. We even try to be better at noticing these clichés around watches and chocolate… But there is something totally different with world-class higher education. There are currently 12,000 students in Swiss schools, we are a very advanced country in everything that is biotechnology or medical technology in particular, with a proliferation of very advanced start-ups on a global scale. These companies absolutely need access to larger markets, as the Swiss market is small. Hence the need for permanent relations with the European Union and the rest of the world. My bicycle journey through France is also an opportunity to tell this story.