Will the Swiss and the EU Get to Yes?

The Swiss Federal Council and the Swiss diplomatic community have been all aflutter about who would go to Brussels to negotiate with the European Commission. While it was obvious from the protocol perspective that the rotating Swiss president, Guy Parmelin would go, the question was who would accompany him. Would Ignazio Cassis, the foreign minister, go along? If not, how would Parmelin, a farmer with little international experience, be able to negotiate an institutional framework agreement between Switzerland and the EU that has been blocked for years.

The art of negotiation, and it is an art, has become a regularly studied academic and diplomatic subject since Roger Fisher and William Ury’s set off a cottage industry with their 1981 best seller Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. (It became a perennial best-seller and is now in its third edition) Individuals, companies and nations have all signed on to the Harvard Negotiation Project and its spinoffs to try to learn how to get to yes.

But the negotiation between two sides assumes that the negotiators have already been chosen. The actors negotiating have to have the authority to make decisions that will be binding after any agreement is reached. After all, what is the point of negotiating if the agreement reached cannot be implemented by one or both sides? Each negotiator must have the necessary legitimacy for his/her side for an agreement to hold.

In Switzerland, pre-negotiation among the Federal Council determined who would go to Brussels. (Cassis will not.) But the very fact that there was a discussion indicates that there was less than unanimity among the Federal Counsellors about who would go, an indication of a lack of agreement on the position of the Swiss Government. Not simple, therefore, for Europeans to understand the Swiss position if among the Swiss authorities they hesitate in deciding who will go to Brussels to meet with Ms. von der Leyen.

To add to the confusion: Who is Switzerland negotiating with? An example of pre-negotiation problems is the protocol mishap about the chair for the European Commission’s head in the recent meeting with the Turkish President Erdogan. Was the Commission’s head less important than the European Council’s President Charles Michel? Who was Erdogan negotiating with? If the Europeans couldn’t get their chain of command straight, how were the Turks to negotiate seriously with them? The “Sofagate” scandal was certainly not an impressive example of European unity or respect for women’s rights.

The question of legitimacy and authority is the basis of all negotiations. The question of who you are is the fundamental fact that must be understood before any negotiation can take place. What is the point of negotiating with someone who has no authority?

The Swiss federal system has many attractions. But, in certain situations such as the negotiations with the European Union or even the question of who is in charge of the pandemic emergency, the lack of clear authority hampers decision-making. A federal democracy has its obvious advantages as well as disadvantages. This is not a call for dictators or autocratic rule. No one questions President Erdogan’s authority, but people should not forget his violations of human rights. Rather, it is a recognition that pre-negotiations about positions of power can show potential weaknesses in later negotiations.

If the Swiss and Europeans are to have fruitful negotiations to get to yes on an institutional framework agreement, both sides must be clear about the identity of the other side. So just as Switzerland’s federal system hinders clear lines of authority, the EU’s devolution of power also raises questions. The April 23 Brussels meeting should clarify lines of authority, a pre-condition to reaching any meaningful agreement. 80% of Switzerland’s trade is with EU member countries. So getting to yes is a Swiss imperative, not matter how confused the pre-negotiations have been.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.