‘Old school’ and ‘new school’ aren’t the sorts of words you expect to be uttered by a diplomat. But standing in the modern concrete annexe to the Swiss embassy in Hellerup, north of Copenhagen, you get the feeling that Benedikt Wechsler doesn’t want to be an ordinary diplomat.
“It’s no longer sufficient to be discreet, observe, and write home. We need to look at diplomacy in a more new-school way,” says Switzerland’s new ambassador to Denmark.
Today he will be escorted to the palace Amalienborg and present his credentials to the Queen, as official protocol requires. But as a first for an incoming ambassador, he will do so by bicycle. Outside his ambassador’s residence he shows off his ride, a renovated Swiss military bicycle from 1945.
It’s just one indication that Wechsler wants to move beyond a role that prioritises discretion, cultivating relationships, and promoting interests behind the security of diplomatic compounds.
“We need to do much more public diplomacy and be more present by engaging with civil society, think tanks, NGOs, the media. The Swiss embassy is much more used to adopting a low key presence,” he says as he mounts the bicycle. “My staff at the embassy weren’t even used to writing press releases!”
The success of public diplomacy is evidenced by the cult-like status enjoyed by the US ambassador Rufus Gifford. Appearing handsome and charming on his reality TV show, he humanises an administration caught up in surveillance and drone scandals.
But does Switzerland need a PR makeover? And what can Switzerland and Denmark learn from each other? Wechsler, a seasoned diplomat who has worked in the Swiss foreign office since 1997, tackles the second question first.
“Switzerland has many interesting designers and architects. Denmark does too, but they do much better at selling their extremely good products – I think we can learn from them,” he says, before adding that Switzerland is also a hub for the pharmaceutical industry and international NGOs, much like Denmark.
Where larger businesses can enter new markets using their own resources, the same can’t be said for smaller businesses. That’s what he’s here for, to make introductions and hold parties and events where Swiss products can take centre stage. He flashes me a Swatch watch with the flags of the Swiss cantons and later, at a reception following his inauguration, stresses that his wife’s dress is made by a famous Swiss designer.
Dealing with EU backlash
However Weschler sees himself as more than just a trade emissary. There are important diplomatic issues to tackle in Denmark, including the EU backlash to a 2014 Swiss referendum to limit immigration with quotas. While it may lie outside the EU, Switzerland has signed a treaty with the EU to guarantee the ‘free movement of persons’.
The referendum puts this guarantee at risk and, in retaliation, the EU formally cooled relations with the alpine state. This included freezing negotiations to integrate Swiss and EU energy networks. Switzerland had otherwise been preparing to link its hydropower systems, adding more renewable energy into the market.
“I need to convince Denmark to stick up for Switzerland in Brussels and say we should be in this market. Denmark could argue that its surplus wind power could be stored in the Swiss alps by using the energy to pump water uphill to be stored as a battery, and released when there was more demand,” Wechsler explains, adding that Switzerland is still trying to find ways to fulfil the referendum’s promise whilst maintaining its commitments to the EU.
Not that he thinks the referendum was a bad idea. Wechsler thinks the EU could learn some important democratic lessons from Switzerland, which has a much higher level of direct democracy. Any popular initiative must be taken to referendum, if it is supported by at least 100,000 residents. And in many local municipalities, the Swiss cantons, residents can directly decide a number of important issues, even the level of taxation.
Populations feel powerless
Wechsler also argues that the desire to control movement need not be seen from a purely populist perspective. He draws on The Law of Peoples by eminent 20th century philosopher John Rawls:
“Rawls believed that in order to preserve the social capital of a society there are good reasons to limit immigration. And he’s a liberal! Refugees obviously need refuge, but there is no obvious right to immigrate and that’s something a lot of people fear, losing that control,” he says adding that the referendum represented an attempt to regain influence.
“People aren’t by nature a xenophobic, they just feel powerless – they feel there are forces out there that they cannot control. I think that’s something the Danes and the Swiss both express.”
Climate is also a pressing point of common ground between the two countries. Swiss delegations will visit Denmark to study their plans to transition to a carbon free energy market by 2050. Ahead of the global climate conference in Paris next month, Wechsler sees Switzerland and Denmark join forces to demand that the world’s largest emitters take more action. It’s vital to the future of his home country.
“Even if Switzerland does its best, we won’t save our our glaciers by ourselves at this rate. We need global solutions. Of course we can adapt, but it’s hard to sell the Alps without the glaciers.” M