Switzerland and trade policy

© Mark Henley/Panos
Due to its focus on exports, Switzerland is a very active player in the field of global trade policy. It is constantly at the fore front in advocating further liberalisation of trade. Liberalising global trade is increasingly becoming an end in itself, when in reality it should be seen as a means to an end. It is not possible for liberalisation to be the goal; rather it should help to improve the living conditions of poorer sections of society. If globalisation is to become equitable, trade policy needs to focus on the weakest links in the chain. This is what Public Eye fights for.

Switzerland’s demands for trade to be liberalised are hypocritical and made for selfish reasons. This is evident when it comes to agricultural trade, where suddenly Switzerland wants to hear nothing of free trade and is one of the world’s greatest protectionists. That stance is legitimate – but the country must also accept the fact that other countries want to maintain external protection for their industrial or services sectors. And yet Switzerland often urges developing countries to open up their markets in sectors where development policy is a sensitive issue, such as the financial services or tourism industries.

There is a difference between multilateral and bilateral trade agreements. The first relates to a policy that applies to all nations, whilst bilateral trade policy governs trade relations across the border between two countries or two groups of countries. Multilateral trade rules and their enforcement are the responsibility of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), whose members include the vast majority of countries. Trade deals between two countries are agreed by means of bilateral free trade agreements. They go further than multilateral rules in liberalising trade between the contracting parties.

© Public Eye

Switzerland fights for strong patent protection

In multilateral and bilateral negotiations, Switzerland is constantly at the forefront when it comes to advocating stronger protection of intellectual property rights. Yet this does little to serve the needs of countries in the Global South. Quite the opposite: in agriculture it leads to less autonomy over seeds, with serious negative consequences for the right to food. Strong intellectual property rights also delay the introduction of generic products, which hinders access to affordable drugs. And they prevent an equitable distribution of vaccines and treatments in the event of global pandemics.

This was painfully evident during the COVID-19 pandemic: a proposal put forward by India and South Africa with the WTO for a temporary suspension of intellectual property protection (TRIPS waiver) during the pandemic was vehemently opposed by some rich countries, above all Switzerland. Such a waiver would have significantly facilitated vaccine and drug production by new manufacturers, especially in the Global South. Public Eye in Switzerland therefore campaigned for acceptance of the TRIPS waiver for months, including with a petition calling on the Federal Council to abandon its opposition to a time-limited waiver on patents for COVID-19 treatments, thus putting the health of all people above the profits of a few pharmaceutical companies. But even during the crucial WTO Ministerial Conference, Switzerland refused to abandon its stance and therefore prevented a comprehensive solution that would have provided equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines.

Switzerland is also a hard negotiator when it comes to increased protection of intellectual property in bilateral free trade agreements. For instance, in the negotiations between EFTA and India, it is making demands that would effectively hinder and delay the introduction of more affordable generic drugs. The demands it made even went too far for its EFTA partner Norway that withdrew from the patent protection negotiations. And with good reason – a range of UN human rights bodies, experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the NGO Doctors Without Borders have warned against the negative impact on the right to healthcare of the ‘TRIPS plus provisions’ (i.e. demands made within the framework of bilateral trade agreements that go beyond what is currently agreed within the multilateral negotiations on the TRIPS agreement). Switzerland pays little heed to such warnings, upholding that in the long run its demands would promote access to new drugs and guarantee appropriate protection for the right to healthcare. Not even scientific research is altering the country’s stubborn stance. In 2010, an article published in the Journal of the International AIDS Society, based on a comprehensive study, stated that “free trade agreements that impose new patent protection requirements on India could make AIDS drugs more expensive, hamper the development of appropriate methods of administration and delay access to newer and more effective drugs.”

Switzerland is also at the forefront of efforts to enforce strict plant variety protection laws in agriculture worldwide under the restrictive UPOV system. The patent-like UPOV system criminalises farmers worldwide if they reuse their seeds. In free trade agreements, Switzerland pressures partner countries to implement UPOV rules, thereby massively restricting the rights to seed in their countries. The practice is downright cynical for EFTA states, since Lichtenstein does not implement the UPOV rules at all and Norway only in a weakened form that allows their farmers more freedom. Even Switzerland has interpreted the rules in a way that means it does not meet the UPOV standard. As such, the EFTA states are demanding stricter laws from their trading partners than they are prepared to implement themselves.