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Politically savvy--Calmy-Rey: since 2003, Micheline Calmy-Rey has been the Swiss minister of Foreign Affairs. During her first year of office, the social democrat successfully highlighted her country as a safe haven for human rights and humanitarian aid.

"I want to be known as a woman pursuing a left policy" Micheline Calmy-Rey had stared right after her election in December 2002. The words were followed by her characteristic broad smile, which soon became her brand mark.

The then newly appointed Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey (58) didn't fail to take appropriate action. Hardly three weeks in office and she requested a meeting with US Secretary of State Colin Powell at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Redefining Swiss Neutrality

In a last attempt to prevent a war in Iraq, the Swiss Minister offered the US to organise a peace conference on Swiss soil. Powell courteously declined. Undeterred, Calmy-Rey steadily proceeded. Shortly after, the minister convened two humanitarian conferences on the threatening war in Iraq, which the UN organisations and the International Red Cross in Geneva could not leave unattended. However, this had little effect on the political agenda of the USA.

In the first 100 days of her term of office Calmy-Rey had rocked the boat more vehemently than all of her predecessors had in decades.

MCR, as people refer to her, decided to re-establish the traditional image of Switzerland as a neutral mediator and a defender of human rights. The home of the International Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions had played a silent diplomatic role during the cold war between east and west. This profile was now being repolished with a new dimension by Calmy-Rey.

The traditional Swiss silent diplomacy was replaced by a rather visible 'public diplomacy. On her visits to France and Germany, the Foreign Minister declared Switzerland's support 16r the European criticism of the US approach of the Iraq conflict. Pushing the neutrality of the country to its limits, Calmy-Rey smiled and did what she deemed appropriate.

As an aside, she launched the idea to publish a list of prisoners of war on the Internet. At smiled point, the Swiss Parliament had enough. The Upper House condemned the Foreign Ministers' unconventional methods and gave her a reprimand Meanwhile, the publicity had paid off. Previously unknown in the German part of Switzerland, Calmy-Rey now was dearly present on the political map of Switzerland

Spotlight on Calmy-Rey

Politically savvy, she has a preference for issues that bring her into the limelight. She knows that a journey abroad is more effective with a carefully chosen member of the press on board of the plane.

Her predecessor Ruth Dreifus may have been a purer socialist, but MCR certainly gets a lot more done. She is as much driven by her political instincts as by the ethical issues she's defending. It's a strong combination that convinces people.

After a rocky start, MCR adapted better to the federal Bern and the Swiss capital got used to her style. Her popularity rose. In July, this Swiss Foreign Minister became the first international politician to cross the frontier between North and South Korea. The small step with a large symbolical meaning was not left unnoticed by the foreign media.

The summer of 2003 brought more such opportunities. The Swiss and German tourists, who had been taken hostage in the Sahara, were liberated out of the hands of the kidnappers in the West-African state of Mali. For a change, it was good old silent diplomacy of the Swiss that did the job. Five months of hard work by the Foreign Office had led the young adventurers back home. Sure enough, it was the foreign minister who was the first Swiss to greet them at Zurich's airport.

The Ministers finest hour in the 2003 was yet to come. Behind the scenes, the Foreign Department had been backing the attempts of Swiss citizens to create an alternative peace plan for the Middle East, mediating between Israel and the Palestine.

The Swiss government had paid for travel and stay and had facilitated the negotiating parties' access to the Palestinian and Israeli territory.

The signing of the Geneva treaty on December 1, 2003, could certainly not have been achieved without the efforts of Calmy-Rey's office. However, the Foreign Minister, this time, carefully kept out of the limelight.

International criticism had risen on the role of Switzerland pushing a plan that deviated from the official roadmap between the two parties. If the plan were to have any success, it was important to stress that the Geneva Treaty was a private initiative. It obviously did not prevent Calmy-Rey to lobby for the initiative on all of her visits abroad. "She may be pushing too hard with her unconventional diplomacy," a Swiss diplomat comments, adding, "But never before in my career have I been kept standing in the streets of my home town. When I was back for Christmas, people kept on telling me what a fantastic boss I was working for. They clearly have the feeling to finally have a minister with guts."

Tackling New Challenges

It came as no surprise that last January, MCR received the Swiss Award as the best political of the country.

However, new challenges lay ahead. Calmy-Rey's priority on humanitarian work is leading her to reform her department. The changes include for the traditional Bilateral diplomacy to give way to the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, SDC. A merger of embassies with the SDC-offices abroad making two totally different cultures work closely now. Some Swiss diplomats, who are not eager to give up their strong position within the Ministry, are fiercely opposing the more. How this cooperation finally shapes up, remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the political landscape of Switzerland has changed dramatically. Since January 1, 2004, two new Ministers have entered the cabinet. Christoph Blocher of the right wing has replaced Ruth Metzler of the Christian Democrats. And the second new minister Merz is a liberal who matches the conservatism of Blocher. Both ministers want to cut taxes, by diminishing social expenditures. This will place the agenda of the socialists under assault.

Until quite recently, Blocher had been a fierce critic of Calmy-Rey's loud diplomacy. Blocher opposes a membership of the EU, which is a long-term goal of the government and a short term one of the Swiss Socialist Party. As the Minister of Justice, Blocher has the Swiss asylum policy under his wings, and he never has made it a secret that his policy towards asylum seekers will be a harsh one.

Micheline Calmy-Rey is at present the only left woman among a majority of conservative men. She is the only hope for left wing and women in Switzerland. And it's no easy job!

If the charming visionary will be clever enough to avoid the demolishing of the Swiss welfare state and growing international isolation of Switzerland, remains to be seen.

More on Calmy-Rey

Micheline Calmy-Rey (1945. Sion, canton Wallis) is married. She is the mother of two and the grandmother of three children.

After her vocational education (Handelsschule), she went on to study political sciences in Geneva.

Steadily climbing the political ladder in the Social Democrant Party (SP) of the Canton of Geneva, she became president of the SP chapter and, subsequently, had several functions in the Cantons' Council of Geneva.

As the Head of the Department of Finances (Genera), Calmy-Rey thoroughly reformed the fiscal system of the canton. The fiscal system, allowing the rich to deduct more from their taxes than the lower incomes could, was replaced by a forfeiter system.
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Title Annotation:Politics
Author:Heddema, Renske
Publication:Swiss News
Date:Mar 1, 2004
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