A Farewell Message and Interview From Ambassador Alexandre FaselFriday, July 30th, 2021
After four eventful years, I left London at the end of May to take up my new role as Switzerland’s Special Representative for Science Diplomacy, based in Geneva.
During my time in London, I was closely involved in the bilateral negotiations between Switzerland and the UK and the Swiss government’s ‘Mind the Gap’ strategy, to ensure a smooth transition of relations both during and after Brexit. I was also delighted to oversee several Swiss Ambassador’s Award concerts, which enabled us to showcase a range of incredibly talented classical musicians across the UK. Last year saw entries for the award extended to British or British-trained musicians for the first time, in the spirit of highlighting the close ties between the UK and Switzerland and helping to foster intercultural exchange.
It has been a real privilege for my wife Nicole and I to meet so many of you during our time here and see for ourselves the tremendous work you do in so many ways to nurture ties of culture, commerce and friendship between the UK and Switzerland. My successor as Ambassador, Mr Markus Leitner, is lucky to be arriving here later in the summer to find such an established and resourceful network of Swiss citizens.
It has been an honour and a pleasure to represent Switzerland in the United Kingdom, and to be able to travel around the country and meet many of you personally at events and gatherings. I will certainly never forget the four enjoyable years I have spent here as Ambassador and I will take many happy memories away with me.
With my very best wishes for the future,
Ambassador of Switzerland to the United Kingdom, 2017–2021
Swiss Review: Ambassador Fasel, these four years have been signed by an intense period of changes and fundamental challenges for the UK. How was your own experience?
Mr Alexandre Fasel: In my role as Ambassador, there have been two major elements, which were constant in my work: the first was Brexit and the implementation of the strategy of the Federal Council ‘Mind the Gap’. So, Brexit and its aftermath have been definitely the guiding theme of my stay. The second central feature was the COVID-19 pandemic which has been a new experience, for everyone. The main point for me was: how much the pandemic would affect my work and my projects? After ensuring everyone was safe and after implementing all the necessary measures, it was crucial to understanding the impact brought by the virus and what lessons could be learned. It is now clear that, if we consider the actual hardcore diplomatic work such as negotiations or consultations with the authorities, it did not suffer because everything was moved online. We were in a phase of the ‘Mind the Gap’ strategy where the direction to take was clear. This part of the diplomatic life can be done online, but the life of an Embassy finds its expression in events, in representation, in engaging with people face-to-face. This part of the work just vanished and could not be completely moved online.
SR: How the relationship between the UK and Switzerland has changed during these four years you served as Ambassador?
AF: With Brexit, the UK has suddenly become a ‘third country’ in Europe so that Switzerland and the UK shared the same characteristic: to be economically and financially important countries outside of the EU. Our relationships were already excellent before Brexit, but from the moment the UK left the EU, our British counterparts took a more active interest in Switzerland: they wanted to hear from us, to know better how life outside of the EU is and how a third country can defend its interests. These questions, together with the implementation of the ‘Mind the Gap’ strategy, led to a remarkable intensification of the bilateral relationship between the UK and Switzerland, taking the form of the ‘Mind the Gap’ strategy as well.
SR: Would you like to mention any particular achievement that you feel to be proud of, please?
AF: Pride is always a dangerous concept. In a certain way, it is difficult to achieve diplomacy alone. Through effective teamwork, I would say that the objective concerning the ‘Mind the Gap’ strategy has been fulfilled in a very satisfactory manner. Another element that I would like to highlight is a project which we called ‘Precision Engineering’: it was aimed at bringing together and promoting closer cooperation between high tech industries in Switzerland and the UK. We used Formula One as the vector to bring those two high tech industries together. Actually, Formula One represents two factors: the sports competition and the world’s foremost technology accelerator. Technological progress is faster in Formula One than in aerospace or in defence.
SR: This is new to me. Could you please explain this better?
AF: Formula One is a very competitive sport and there are considerable financial means involved. Every weekend or every second weekend, there is a race. It is high tech at the very sharp end of things. And the technology keeps evolving for competitive reasons. The other aspect is that seven of the ten Formula One teams are based in the Midlands of England that is the centre of the world for Formula One: it is called the ‘Motorsport Valley’. We also have a Formula One team in Switzerland which races as Alfa Romeo. The idea was to bring together those two entrepreneurial industries. If those two worlds could meet and sell services and products to one another – but also to team up and use technology to penetrate commercially other markets, like automotive, aerospace, marine, and other sectors – then this would be in the mutual interest of both countries. The British side – which is undisputedly number one in that domain of technology acceleration through motorsports – has found an interest in buying technology from the Swiss. It has been a very positive experience. That’s quite an achievement. We were able to sell the services and products into the heartland of Formula One and paved the way for sharing high tech services from both countries: the vector of Formula One has led to a whole array of new opportunities.
SR: Can you mention please just another example, a concrete example of how it has worked?
AF: For example, one of the technologies that are evolving through Formula One concerns materials, which have to be extremely lightweight and yet extremely strong. The Formula One materials industry has perfected the carbon fibre technology which is now being very widely used. But unfortunately, it requires a lot of carbon to be consumed and, consequently, this material entails a significant CO2 footprint. In Switzerland, there is a company called Bcomp – a spin-off of the École Poly-technique of Lausanne – which uses flax fibres to reinforce the materials. The McLaren Formula One team is now partnering with Bcomp to pioneer sustainable light weighting in the sport, but the BComp technology can also be used in automotive, motorsport, skis, bikes, tennis rackets, everything can be made with natural fibres: it is sustainable and green. We helped to bring this technology to Britain where they are trying to adopt it due to the pressure we all have to bring society towards zero CO2 footprint.
SR: And well, just a very simple question to know what drives you to get so involved with the Swiss community despite so many other commitments?
AF: It was a great joy, a very fulfilling and gratifying experience to engage with the local community here. Engaging with the Swiss community is part and parcel of the Swiss diplomat’s role, which is to implement the foreign policy of the Federal Council. It is all about safeguarding and promoting the interests of our country, which ultimately are the interests of the Swiss citizens at home and abroad. What we actually do for the Swiss nationals can take the form of concrete negotiations like the one around the Citizens’ Rights Agreements (the settled status), but it can also take the form of regular participation in the social life of the community.
SR: Could you tell us a moment that has been meaningful for you during these four years?
AF: I really dread those questions because the life of a diplomat is very rich in human experience and I really feel hard-pressed to make choices. One unique experience I had with my wife Nicole has to do with the pandemic. During the first lockdown, we took up cycling. Every evening, after the job, we would take our bikes and go outside for an hour or two (at the weekends even a bit longer). Finding yourself alone in what shortly before was a buzzing metropolis has been a surreal experience. There was nobody there, this brought us venturing out of the centre of London, from west to east, north and south. We visited most of the 32 boroughs of the capital. So I think I am the first Swiss ambassador who has cycled so many miles and so widely across London.