Whenever I go to meet the Queen, I feel like a schoolboy

Alexandre Fasel has been the ambassador of the Swiss Confederation to the United Kingdom for one and a half years, with Brexit inevitably dominating his agenda. In an interview published in the Sunday edition of the Zuger Zeitung, the 57-year-old, who hails from Fribourg, mentioned that Switzerland was as prepared as any country which trades with the UK could be.

When asked what the highlight of his term in office had been so far, he said it was difficult to choose one in particular, as there had been so many.

“It was a very special occasion when I went to present my letters of credence to the Queen, though naturally a monarchy is a strange concept to us republicans. I have met the Queen four times now and each time I felt very much like a schoolboy,” he admitted, as he added that while he had prepared what to say, he still ended up stammering his way through it.

With over 100 Swiss embassies across the globe, London is a particularly attractive posting. What made it so special for him?
“It is the quality of the people in this city,” he replied. “Whether they work in the areas of politics, administration, economics, culture or academia, it is a great privilege for me to be able to come into contact with them. I also find the ceremony of British public life very exciting, too, it being a combination of progress yet anchored in centuries-old tradition. To the outsider many of these rituals may appear old fashioned and peculiar, yet behind them there is also a modernity and progressivity which fascinates me. It all helps to make the work I do here very interesting. It is certainly never boring,” he said as he mentioned that, as a diplomat, one also had to be a journalist, an analyst, a writer, a speaker, a promoter of the economy, a hotelier, an event manager and an entrepreneur. “All of these elements make my job extremely stimulating,” he said.

Naturally he reports all he hears back to the Federal Council in Bern. “We are continually looking at this and that and analysing and discussing with my embassy colleagues (about whom he was very complimentary) in order to be able to form an opinion. After all, the Federal Council wants to know all about what is going on here. We have to be able to provide Bern with information upon which it will form its policy, a policy which we here at the embassy go on to implement. We are very much in close contact with Bern,” he reiterated.

When asked what had gone through his mind when he heard the British people had voted to leave the European Union, he explained first that, while at university, he had studied comparative constitutional law, and the unwritten English constitution in particular, in which the supremacy of parliament plays a pivotal role.  Hence when he heard about the result of the referendum, he felt that this was not absolutely the last word on the matter. “How will this sovereignty of parliament cope with this?” he asked himself. “After all, a referendum result is not legally binding, though naturally politicians said they would carry out the people’s wishes. It is parliament, however, which will have the final say.”

It is not surprising Fasel foresaw the heated debates about parliament’s sovereignty and the referendum result. What did surprise him, however, was passing of the Withdrawal Treaty without there being any clarity about what this would look like, a matter which continues to be much debated.

Did this mean that, since the summer of 2016, London has become a less attractive place for Swiss people to live and work?
“At present the figures do not show any clear trend, and, based on Swiss circles, we have not heard the country has become any less welcoming. The British government has made it clear there will be no change with regard to Swiss citizens who are settled here,” he said, as he mentioned Switzerland was one of the first countries to conclude an agreement relating to a post-Brexit United Kingdom and indeed the very first country to regulate post-Brexit relationships with it. “The Federal Council began negotiations with the UK about this even before the referendum,” he explained. “What can we expect?”, we asked ourselves, whereupon an inter-departmental working committee was set up immediately after the result was announced,” he said, the ensuing policy worked out by the Federal Council duly named “Mind the Gap” (in relation to the warning when getting on an off tube trains).

Fasel mentioned that, with Switzerland’s bilateral agreements with the EU, the Confederation already had close relationships with the UK, which would mean gaps after Brexit. He mentioned, too, the huge economic ties the UK had with Switzerland, the latter being the third largest market for British service exports after the USA and the EU.

Does all this mean the relationship between Switzerland and a post-Brexit UK is assured?
“The legal basis of our relationship is assured, though one cannot tell what might happen in the event of a hard Brexit. I am thinking of road haulage problems, such as delays at ports, in particular, as we would also be affected. A Swiss lorry driver cannot simply say, “We have a special treaty with the UK; let me through.” Nevertheless, we do have this agreement, so we are as prepared as we can be.”

And what does Fasel miss most about his home canton?
“Walking around the local market on Saturday morning talking with locals.”
Fortunately, if he feels like some local cheese, such as Vacherin fribourgeois and Greyerzer, he can get it at a shop round the corner from the embassy, until March 29 at any rate.  

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