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 about 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. Even in 2008, in the midst of the financial crisis, Switzerland was pushing for the financial sector to be liberalised within the framework of the WTO General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS).

There is a difference between multilateral, plurilateral 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. In recent years, the plurilateral approach, in which a group of countries jointly sets out rules for trade in a regional or sectoral agreement, has become increasingly important.

© Public Eye

Switzerland fights for stronger patent rights

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 South. Quite the opposite: in agriculture it leads to less autonomy over seeds, with serious negative consequences for the right to food. Stronger intellectual property rights also delay the introduction of generic products, which hinders access to affordable drugs.

This attitude has taken root in the World Trade Organisation (WTO). When the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) entered into force in 1995, least-developed countries (LDCs) were given just 20 years as a transition period. Before this period came to an end, these countries exercised their right to submit a request to the WTO to extend the deadline indefinitely for as long as a country was classified as an LDC. Yet Switzerland filed petty reservations and flatly refused to support the LDCs’ proposal.

Switzerland is also paving the way 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. The country 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 which go beyond what has currently been 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. And not even scientific research could alter 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.