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“Negotiating with China is a special experience”

China, Egypt or even South Korea: Ambassador Christian Etter is the Delegate of the Federal Council for Trade Agreements and has participated in and led various negotiations regarding free trade agreements. In the interview, Christian Etter talks about how he conducts such negotiations and which discussions make for lasting memories.

Christian Etter: “The basic requirement for successful negotiations knowledge of your dossier”
Christian Etter: “The basic requirement for successful negotiations knowledge of your dossier”

Mr. Etter, you have negotiated free trade agreements with many different countries. How do you prepare for those discussions?
Negotiating international treaties is not something you can learn at university; above all, it is learning by doing. I gained my initial experience with negotiations in the WTO in the 1990s. I took part in the first negotiations on free trade agreements as a staffer, with experienced people leading the talks. With every negotiation, your wealth of experience increases. About 15 years ago, I became the head of the delegation and negotiation team in the negotiation of free trade agreements with countries including Egypt, Tunisia, South Korea, Hong Kong, Canada, the Gulf States, and most recently in negotiations with the People’s Republic of China.

The necessary experience consists in imagining before each suggestion how the respective negotiating partner could react. This is the only way to avoid getting into a difficult situation. As in chess, you have to count on different possible “counter moves” for which you always have to have the right response in mind.

Intercultural communication also plays an important role in international negotiations. Where did you acquire this knowledge?
After all the years of negotiating with different countries on almost every continent, I’ve come to the conclusion that people everywhere are actually very similar. With above-average knowledge and expertise, you can gain respect, and with the empathy and respect of your counterpart, you can usually build a bond of trust that is essential for successful negotiations. Our interlocutors are often representatives of trade and foreign ministries, most of whom also have international experience and speak English. This greatly simplifies communication. Before certain negotiations, we hold seminars for the negotiating team in to prepare ourselves for the peculiarities of a country. The “cultural” differences we deal with relate mostly to the legal and government systems. For example, it is a challenge to negotiate with representatives of a complex system of government that represent different, even contradictory, positions, depending on the ministry they come from.

Negotiations can take a long time. Do you ever lose patience?
I’m a patient guy by nature. That is a good starting point for international negotiations between governments. Since different interests need to be bridged, quick success is rare. It is often not obvious why a proposal is rejected. Only after sometimes lengthy discussions, with subtle questions sprinkled in, do you get closer to the truth. An idea often has to be explained from different perspectives and repeatedly until it can arouse the necessary understanding. This does not always succeed, meaning that you have to develop and introduce new solutions. Sometimes you wonder if it’s all necessary. But that’s part of the job and ultimately makes it exciting.

What do you find exciting about your work?
Every negotiation is a new “adventure,” with new situations and new interlocutors. Every negotiation process is different; you never know how the other party will react to a proposal. And the tension remains until the end, that is, until the signing of an agreement. Even in the last few days, new demands can “emerge.”

You are 64 years old. Do you have any words for your potential successor?
The basic requirement for successful negotiations is knowledge of your dossier. The more we know about the subject areas to be discussed in an agreement, or about similar treaties from other countries, and the better we know a negotiating partner, his or her interests, possibilities and limitations, the greater the chances of success. Empathy and the ability to build trust are decisive. In the international arena, trust is very important, since the negotiating partners often come from very different legal and government systems. This can be a breeding ground for misunderstandings and mistrust. Trust is based on respect for your counterpart as a partner and requires credibility, reliability and honesty.

Which negotiations will you remember most?
All of them, actually. Every agreement has its own story. Particularly memorable were the negotiations on the free trade agreement with Egypt. The negotiation with Egypt was one of the first in which I led the negotiations and the delegation for Switzerland. My counterpart was a longtime, very experienced negotiator – extremely relentless on the matter, but cordial in personal dealings – who once told me that I did not have to explain this or that to him; after all, his country had several thousand years of experience with international economic agreements. Of course, the Federal Charter of 1291 was nothing compared to that.
In the agreement with South Korea, as chief negotiator and head of delegation, I was responsible for the process of negotiating a comprehensive free trade agreement for the first time, which was not primarily concerned with dismantling tariffs as before, but also with areas such as trade in services, investment or public procurement.
The negotiations with China will certainly be remembered for a long time to come. Negotiating a comprehensive free trade agreement with China is a special experience, if only because of the size of the delegation. The Chinese delegation comprised over 60 people, while the Swiss team counted around 20 colleagues. Although the actual negotiation of the agreement proceeded relatively quickly – it lasted from 2011 to 2013 – the process from the first exploratory talks in 2008 to its entry into force on July 1, 2014 took more than 6 years. Even though there were many ordeals and seemingly impossible situations during this time, such as when representatives of the Chinese negotiating delegation from various ministries could not agree on an issue that was important to us, I found the Chinese colleagues straightforward, pragmatic and reliable.

About Christian Etter

Ambassador Christian Etter is the Delegate of the Federal Council for Trade Agreements. Since 2006, he has headed the Foreign Trade Services Division of the Foreign Trade Directorate of the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs SECO. He previously served as Head of EFTA/Free Trade Agreements at SECO. From 1996 to 2000, Christian Etter headed the Department for Economic, Financial and Trade Matters at the Swiss embassy in Washington, D.C.

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