President of the Swiss Confederation

Speech made to the Assembly

Friday, 20 September 1991

Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, this year it is the Swiss Confederation which has been singled out for special distinction by your Assembly, and the honour of addressing you at this solemn session falls to its president. I am, moreover, moved to note that this is the first time in the entire history of the Council of Europe that this honour has fallen to him. Thank you for this, for the privilege which is mine today, but above all for the exceptional opportunity you have given Switzerland to let its voice be heard in the chorus of European nations.

My presence should, above all, bear witness to Switzerland’s gratitude to the Council of Europe for the extraordinary commitment it has shown, over a period of more than forty years, in the service of European unity and the promotion in Europe of human rights, democracy and a whole series of other essential values. Please permit me, Madame Catherine Lalumière, to offer you my country’s special gratitude for the remarkable work you accomplish with such strength and perspicacity as Secretary General of our great, ancient European institution. I am also keen to express my joy at the idea that the Baltic States, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, will soon be playing a full part in your work. I should like to proffer special greeting to those countries’ representatives, and to the delegation from a renewed Soviet Union, moving witness to the great changes we are going through at the present time.

So here is the President of the Swiss Confederation, here in Strasbourg. But isn’t this something of a paradox? Your attention is focused less than a hundred miles up the Rhine from here, on a prosperous and peaceful country, whilst the thoughts, hopes and fears of all Europeans are following the courses of some of the other rivers of our continent, away to the east. With all the upheavals which have kept us on the edge of our seats for over two years, with half of Europe pulling down the structures built up by the greatest hypocrisy in history, and even breaking down inherited and long-accepted frontiers, might you not have wanted to hear from this platform a different message from mine?

(The speaker continued in German). In your wisdom, you thought otherwise. You wanted to celebrate with Switzerland the 700th anniversary of the alliance signed in August 1291 by three mountain communities to withstand “the malice of the times”, that alliance which, expanding little by little, was eventually to found a country, and later on, in 1848, a federal state. For 700 years it has existed in the heart of Europe: you are paying homage to a long history of stability on which it is certainly not inappropriate to reflect at this present juncture.

You are paying homage to 700 years of our active presence in Europe. For neither our independence, nor later our neutrality, has ever meant separation from the affairs of this continent. You are paying homage, now more topically than ever, to the fact that within a single small country there live happily side by side four languages, three major European civilisations, two great Christian faiths, and to the trusting and genuine respect for minorities within one and the same nation. The reality of this respect I can confirm in person, as President of the Confederation who is a member of the small Italian-speaking minority.

We do appreciate your demonstration of friendship, your recognition of the testimony of our history. We appreciate them all the more because we need them; for this anniversary we are celebrating is not characterised by all the serenity or all the confidence in the future that we might have wished. First of all because Switzerland, along with all the peoples of Europe, and indeed the whole world, has to face the daunting problems of society’s grave damage to the environment, the increasing burden of our infrastructures, drugs, Aids and the breakdown of values which is disconcerting to some and upsetting to others. The very spirit of consensus and participation which is the foundation of our entire political culture is being eroded by the egotism and increasing short-sightedness of private interests.

(The speaker continued in French). But above all, our anniversary coincides with a fundamental questioning, with major decisions that we shall have to take. Questions and decisions for which our recent history – bearing the stamp of an isolation which may be legitimate but which may also be unjustified – not to mention our comfortable lifestyle and routine, have ill prepared us: what place should Switzerland occupy, what place can it occupy, in the Europe of tomorrow?

This is by no means a simple question.

It is not simple because it is viewed in a different light by the Swiss and their partners. The Swiss are certainly willing to play a full and active part in a Europe joining together to enjoy peace, democracy and the spread of its great civilisation; they are at the same time jealous of their dignity as citizens called upon, as you are aware, to have their day on the major and minor questions put to the nation; and are jealous of the traditions they have taken seven centuries to build up and neither will or can give up with a stroke of the pen.

But the Swiss will also have to be ceaselessly reminded that their readiness in principle, on which I shall have more to say, to assume fuller European responsibilities presupposes a real desire for harmonisation and hence a real willingness, where absolutely necessary, to abandon certain elements in their common heritage, however venerable that heritage may seem.

Finding a balance between these two stipulations – participating in the various institutions and safeguarding our diversity – is what I might call the political work of art our generation will have to accomplish. And I mean what I say – a whole generation. Because the process towards European unity will certainly not be completed in a few months, whatever some impatient people – and there are many of them in Switzerland, as well as in the rest of Europe – may say.

As for our European partners, they are justly proud of the progress already made along the path of European unity, largely thanks to the 1957 Treaty of Rome. They are proud of having turned upside down, in its final years, a millennium, full of wars and conflicts; of having finally decided to unite, in peace, democracy and respect for human rights; of having established mutual trust and solidarity between age-old enemies. It is to be sincerely hoped that this remarkable success story will not lead them to prejudge the place that Switzerland and the other European countries, the newcomers, ought to occupy.

The Europe of tomorrow, ladies and gentlemen, will be the result of dialogue based on trust, of reconciliation between the ambitions and interests involved, and above all, of equality of status, in spite of the undeniable inequality of power.

Another reason why the solution is far from simple is that it presupposes an answer to this question: what will be the identity of the Europe of the future?

Outlines which were apparently secure and straightforward, in their tragic rigidity, just three short years ago, have suddenly become blurred. A situation which we scarcely dared believe would come about, and at which we all, needless to say, rejoice.

The countries of eastern Europe have recovered their independence and their national dignity. Germany has spontaneously reunited, we have all sung the praises of a really freedom-loving Europe. Even the Soviet Union has broken free from its former totalitarian system. For this fact, homage must be paid to the perspicacity and perseverance of President Gorbatchev, who has already addressed you from this podium, without whose qualities the historic upheavals we have all witnessed could assuredly not have taken place.

But the blurred outline of Europe has its down side too. Refound freedom, going hand in hand with prolonged poverty, is awakening the instincts of intolerance to minorities, those old ethnic and nationalist reactions, frontier disputes and other dramas which we thought had been consigned to the history books. The order of totalitarianism, in Yugoslavia and elsewhere, is giving way to the disorder born of uncontrolled emotions.

Whether we find this new state of affairs reassuring or worrying, it is also of very direct concern to Switzerland and to its peoples’ perception of its European vocation and responsibility.

Allow me to offer you an analysis of that perception, though one that makes no claim to total accuracy.

My compatriots, you see, look upon Europe in terms of a number of concentric circles, rather like those Russian dolls that fit one inside the other. To them, Europe is first and foremost the land around our borders, on our doorstep. It consists of those plains and cities which we can reach in a few minutes. We play our part in the great cultures and the creativity of the neighbouring countries. On all sides of our frontiers, we have set up trading links and constructed areas of regional co-operation, which, in the Europe of the future, will represent an element of certainty in the half-way house between states and the continental edifice which is destined to be built.

The next Europe, as seen by the Swiss, is the European Community of the Twelve, with whom we feel and know that we have much “in common”, though we are still not formally members; for instance, our common industrial and service economies, and also our common sensitivities, the identity of our civilisation. At the College of Europe in Bruges, in a few days time, I shall have an opportunity of referring to this great role as a driving force assumed by the European Community.

But the Swiss are attached by both the head and the heart to your Europe, which is also ours; I mean that of the Council of Europe: that is a Europe to which we already belong fully. We see in it the natural framework for the assumption of our overall responsibilities as Europeans. For that reason we should like to see a two-fold expansion of the Council of Europe. An expansion in its area, so that it corresponds – and at least this is a realistic possibility – to the geographical Europe, from the Atlantic to the Urals, and an expansion in the service it renders.

Our Council of Europe; an essential forum for welcoming, and rapidly integrating the new democracies; what a fascinating fact that is! In addition the future shape of the continent – which is far from being definitively drawn as yet and which will probably be less monolithic than some people imagine – might confer more extensive functions on the Council of Europe. I myself have no doubt about it; in the coming years the good offices of the Council of Europe will be very much in demand. It will in any case be the privileged forum and the laboratory for testing the ideas, visions and prospects of the long process of European unification.

Switzerland wishes to see this political role reinforced within the Council of Europe; to see it once again assume the scope of former times. Pre-eminence should once again be given to political debate and to the joint evaluation of the major questions of concern to our whole continent.

That is the fundamental role being carved out for the Council of Europe. All this will require institutional and cultural means just as much as economic or financial means. Switzerland intends to make its contribution, commensurate with its resources. It even sees this as its duty and as an honour. Because, as you have realised, the family link between Switzerland and Europe is so close that there is no need to spell it out.

Switzerland could be, in the last analysis, the daughter of Europe, the daughter of European history. How many examples I could cite in that regard!

Switzerland is the daughter of European politics; witness the fact that its status has time and again been sanctioned by Europe, meeting down the centuries at different levels – a process that reached its culmination at the Congress of Vienna, which formally recognised my country’s neutrality.

Switzerland is the economic daughter of Europe, through its close links, through its complexion, through the Saint-Gotthard, the shortest and most direct link between the north and south of Europe.

Allow me to stress above all that Switzerland is the daughter of Europe’s cultures. I repeat: three of its cultures meet there, sometimes clashing, but more often than not producing a cross-fertilisation, not in uniformity, but in the familiarity they achieve, in their creative force.

More than the economic and more than the political encounters, the encounter between cultures has wrought tolerance. Today, it sustains that tolerance. I regard it as one of the essential characteristics of my country. No one is unaware of the tolerance of the Swiss, of their curiosity, of their friendly respect for minorities.

This family link no doubt leads many of our compatriots to tend to regard their country as the navel of Europe. So it is what we would call a Sonderfall, a special case, within the continent as a whole.

That attitude, while understandable in times of war or when faced with dictatorships, would today be, more than just an aberration, a failure to face up to our responsibilities, a way of rejecting Europe without saying so, without daring to look it in the face. It is a well-known fact, ladies and gentlemen, that ostriches are always wrong. Switzerland is no more a special case than any other country, except on one point which is at the same time our strength and our weakness.

The fact is, Switzerland is a “nation of will”, to use the felicitous and hight apposite phrase of Denis de Rougemont. In other words, our country does not, like so many other nations, consist of a clearly defined geographical area, an area unified on the basis of a common language and culture, or one centred around a single power bringing land and people together. Switzerland’s only reality is in the will of her citizens, women and men alike, to join together to form a nation of differences.

That is its strength, I repeat, inasmuch as the nation exists only in the minds of the Swiss, transcending natural forces. But it is also its weakness, for that awareness could fade, and the will become blunted.

That is surely the risk Switzerland is running today. Our will certainly needs to be strengthened. It is in the friendly challenge, or the call, that Europe is proffering to Switzerland that I see our best opportunity, ladies and gentlemen. Switzerland will be proud to fulfil its European vocation. It will find in itself once again the full spectrum of its many-faceted identity, called in question by some people in a moment of fatigue. Europe will help Switzerland by welcoming it, by respecting it, and by placing demands on it. It is true that, isolated in its ivory tower, misunderstood by its partners, Switzerland ran the risk of moral disintegration, even more than of political disintegration. What a misfortune that would be for the inheritors of a 700-year history!

Such a disintegration would also be, in my view, a great loss for Europe as a whole. Because for that Europe, the stakes are no different from those which marked Switzerland’s own long epic history. Either Europe will be conscientious and respected in diversity – a diversity which is also synonymous with strength and weakness – or else there will be no Europe. For our part, we wish to see that Europe! (Applause)


Thank you, Mr President, for your very elegant and interesting speech, which I am sure has been heard with keen attention by the members of our Assembly. You have been generous enough to agree to answer some questions, and I remind members that they should take only half a minute to ask them.

Mr DIAZ DE MERA (Spain) (interpretation)

congratulated President Cotti on a brilliant and sincere statement. His question was based on the fact that Switzerland was faced with a paradox. Since the beginning, it had been the headquarters for international organisations, with its 700 years of history as the oldest voluntary association of people’s languages, cultures and religions. But Switzerland was not a member of the United Nations. He wondered whether there was any possibility that Switzerland could revise its stand and make participation possible.

Mr Cotti, President of the Swiss Confederation (translation)

Thank you for your question and more particularly for your very generous appraisal of my country.

I would sum up your question in a single sentence: as regards Switzerland’s relations with the United Nations, why does this country, which houses the headquarters of so many international organisations, not act in a manner consistent with its long-standing universal aspirations?

In the mid-1980s, as you know, the Swiss Government and Parliament submitted to the people a proposal for full membership of the United Nations and, as you also know, the final decision in this and other matters rests with the people: the result of the referendum in 1986 was absolutely clear, even if it deeply disappointed all those who hoped that accession would ultimately be achieved.

However, both in the years preceding the referendum and in more recent years, Switzerland has used every means at its disposal to broaden and intensify its co-operation with the United Nations. Not only is Switzerland a member of all the related agencies but it also performs good offices (as recently witnessed during a serious conflict) in full agreement with the United Nations and, more specifically, with the Secretary General.

There remains the formal problem of membership, which is important. In Switzerland it is customary, when the people have rejected a proposal by referendum, to wait quite some time before putting the same question to them again.

At present, therefore, the Federal Government’s priority is undoubtedly the problem of drawing closer to Europe.

Sir Geoffrey FINSBERG (United Kingdom)

As you will know, the Council of Europe believes that it is ideally qualified to become the democratic assembly for the whole of Europe, as democracy expands in Europe. Does Switzerland support that idea, or does it go along with some will-of-the-wisp idea that is being floated by others?

Mr Cotti, President of the Swiss Confederation

As I tried to explain in my introduction, we consider that the Assembly can soon bring about the reunion of all European peoples, from the Atlantic to the Urals. I believe that the way should be quite easy, and I hope that it will be adopted as soon as possible.

Mr TARSCHYS (Sweden) (translation)

Mr President, may I congratulate you on your excellent speech.

My question is as follows: what is the current attitude of the Swiss Government with regard to Switzerland’s joining the European Community?

Mr Cotti, President of the Swiss Confederation (translation)

Let us take stock of the situation regarding this problem.

At the start of the negotiations on a European Economic Area – negotiations that are still continuing and regarding which I can already say, regard

less of their outcome, that they have been of extraordinary value to my country, since we have now finally embarked on the road to Brussels through a system of truly comprehensive negotiations – the Federal Council considered the possibility of an economic area as a viable alternative, in the short or medium term, to accession to the Community pure and simple.

I have the impression that the negotiations are now tending towards a more finely shaded view of the final significance of the economic area. The negotiations are not yet complete; it is too soon to judge and to draw conclusions.

In May of this year, then, the Federal Council indicated that the option of accession to the Community had acquired paramount importance.

We are in the process of re-examining the report, prepared two years ago, which came out in favour of an economic area. We wish to obtain a definitive view of the reasons for and possibilities offered by accession to the Community, and of its feasibility. The Federal Council will certainly make its decision shortly. Of course, it will have to wait until negotiations on the economic area are complete.

I would remind you of one point of which you are aware: in this sphere the final word rests with the sovereign will of the people. One of the essential tasks of the political class of my generation is to establish a fruitful and constructive dialogue with public opinion, to enable it swiftly to come to terms with the decision to move definitively towards Europe.

I can inform you that the Federal Council absolutely rules out any continuation by Switzerland along the path of isolation within Europe. It is calling for institutional participation. I have informed you of the studies under way, and decisions by the Federal Council will follow shortly.


I understand that there are three more questions which deal with the same subject. I shall ask those three members of the Assembly to put their questions and then I shall call on Mr Cotti to answer them.

Mr JESSEL (United Kingdom)

In the course of his most uplifting address the President of the Swiss Confederation referred to the threat to the environment. One should question whether large numbers of heavy lorries in transit between other countries should be allowed to thunder through beautiful Swiss valleys. The Alps is one of the most beautiful regions of the world and if we do not help to save our European heritage, future generations will curse us and they will be right to do so. In that connection, is the President willing to comment on reports that Switzerland has been put under pressure by the European Commission to let those heavy lorries across that country in large numbers? Is he aware that many of us hope that Switzerland will dig in its heels and refuse to be bullied, and that we greatly admire the stand that Switzerland is taking?

Mr HARDY (United Kingdom)

My question is the same, in part because I am an officer of the Anglo-Swiss parliamentary group in Britain.

During the relatively recent period of my chairmanship of the Committee on the Environment, Regional Planning and Local Authorities my colleagues and I have shared the concern that has been frequently expressed in our committee by representatives from the Alpine regions. We have come to appreciate the choking effect that north-south road transportation has caused in the Alpine regions. We recognise that growth in that traffic could cause environmental strangulation. In common with Mr Jessel we grew to suspect that the European Community was not affording quite the degree of consideration that would have been enjoyed had the Alpine regions in question been part of the Community. We are anxious that sufficient priority may be given to ensure that the growth in north-south traffic in Europe is borne to a greater extent by the railway rather than by road. Unless that happens the situation will become ever increasingly intolerable in the Alpine regions, particularly in Switzerland.

Mr VALLEIX (France) (translation)

Let it not be said that only our British friends have addressed the European theme. Allow me then, Mr President, as Chairman of the Committee on Economic Affairs and Development, to draw your attention to the point that seems to me crucial from that standpoint. Does the Confederation envisage any initiatives which would enable us to resolve a central European problem, while at the same time serving the interests of the Swiss population, and, in particular, safeguarding the environment? Could those initiatives not take the form of better co-ordination between rail and road transport, that is, not only for each means of transport, but for the combination of the two?

Combined and other procedures currently exist, which should facilitate them.

Could your country not help us to take a fresh look at this problem and come up with satisfactory solutions?

Mr Cotti, President of the Swiss Confederation (translation)

I am very grateful to you for these questions, which concern one of the crucial points of the negotiations under way between the Alpine countries, Switzerland in particular, and the European Communities in the field of transport.

You are aware that the current negotiations are proving tough, because the legitimate interests at stake are important and hard to reconcile.

On the other hand, it is undeniable that Switzerland has traditionally had a function as a link. For example, the Pont du Diable, north of the Saint-Gotthard pass, was built in the Middle Ages to provide a direct link between north and south. Switzerland has fully assumed that role as a link, right down the centuries; witness the fact that in the middle of the last century my country built the Saint-Gotthard railway tunnel, which opened up trade and traffic between the Mediterranean countries – Italy in particular – and the north of Europe to a remarkable extent.

The economic necessity for transport is indisputable. The need is real, and Switzerland well understands the Community and the European countries which are asking of her a specific service which only she, along with Austria perhaps, can provide, because of her geographical location.

On the other hand, environmental considerations are paramount. Perhaps you know that, among my other portfolios, I am responsible for Switzerland’s environmental policy within the Federal Department of the Interior. I can thus assure you that we take serious account of this aspect of the problem. We are sometimes reproached in Switzerland itself for giving it undue prominence, but I do not think it is possible to take environmental policy too seriously.

The requirement to respect the values represented by the Alps – not values where air pollution or noise levels are concerned, so much as their absolutely extraordinary scenic and cultural values – is a top priority for my country. So I am certain that I can count on the understanding of those who put forward options from the standpoint of the other legitimate interest.

The key question concerns the strategic evolution of traffic and the distribution of that traffic between road and rail.

Switzerland is firmly in favour of the rail option, ladies and gentlemen: so much so – and Mr Bremi, the Speaker of the National Council Chamber in our parliament, can confirm this – that a major debate is currently taking place in Parliament on appropriations exceeding 20 billions francs that Switzerland wishes to invest in building new rail infrastructures. In particular we are talking of two very long tunnels under the Alps – the longest tunnels in the world, needless to say! – which will substantially reduce the distance between north and south and make it possible to cross Switzerland very rapidly.

Allow me to stress that Switzerland regards such an investment as a service to Europe, and the debate currently taking place in the States Council testifies to that will.

Here again, it will be for the Swiss people to decide on the matter, but I am sure it will show itself capable of solidarity while at the same time respecting the environment.

The key question concerns the interim period, because these tunnels are not going to be built overnight. However, we are hopeful that the negotiations under way will come up with conclusions.

In the framework of the discussions under way between Alpine countries and the European Community, feelings run particularly high on the issue, and the negotiations on this question are particularly tense. It is right that this should be so, because the stakes are very high indeed.


The last three questions illustrate two factors: first, how dependent we are on each other – Europe’s problems are common and cannot be solved by only one country; secondly, how centrally located Switzerland is in Europe. It is positioned in the heart of Europe, and all of us believe that it is necessary for Switzerland to continue to take an active role in European affairs.

We are very grateful for what you, Mr Cotti, said in your speech about supporting the Council of Europe in the future. It would be very sad if the new democracies in central and eastern Europe could not benefit from your long experience of solving the problems I mentioned when I welcomed you. For many hundred years Switzerland has been living proof that it is possible to solve even the most complicated problems. By using four different languages here today you, President Cotti, have set a very good example. Thank you on behalf of the Assembly for coming here and making an excellent speech, and for your willingness to answer our questions.