Light­ning Con­duc­tor

The Herald Business - - Eye On The World -

FOR 700 years Switzer­land has re­mained res­o­lutely and hap­pily an anom­aly. The coun­try of just 7.7 mil­lion peo­ple, land­locked and bor­dered by Aus­tria, France, Italy, Ger­many and Liecht­en­stein has ploughed its im­pla­ca­bly repub­li­can fur­row while view­ing the mael­strom around with su­pe­rior in­dif­fer­ence.

The Swiss swiftly spot­ted the Haps­burgs’ po­ten­tial for mak­ing trou­ble and gave them and their pompously styled Holy Ro­man Em­pire the el­bow in 1499.

And with some pre­science: the Swiss-born fam­ily man­aged to keep Europe in a state of per­pet­ual tur­moil un­til the early 20th cen­tury. Thus, while oth­ers in Euope en­gaged in dy­nas­tic squab­bling on ev­ery side the Swiss de­voted them­selves to build­ing an econ­omy that is the envy of its EU neigh­bours and did not of­fi­cially be­come a UN mem­ber un­til 2002.

Avowedly non-euro, Switzer­land has main­tained the franc’s long-term ex­ter­nal value. Un­em­ploy­ment is less than half the EU av­er­age and Switzer­land is by far the largest off­shore bank­ing cen­tre in the world, a dom­i­nance ac­quired through a tra­di­tion of eco­nomic, fi­nan­cial and po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity. The coun­try’s bankers are jus­ti­fi­ably fa­mous for port­fo­lio man­age­ment and pro­vid­ing a wide ar­ray of ser­vices such as es­tate plan­ning, wealth man­age­ment, trust com­pa­nies, gold numismatics, de­riv­a­tives and con­fi­den­tial bro­ker­age ac­counts – up­held by a le­gal sys­tem which is ex­tremely strict about any breach of com­mer­cial con­fi­den­tial­ity.

This con­fi­den­tial­ity is, of course, con­trolled and pa­trolled by the wraith-like ‘gnomes of Zurich’ – the semi-myth­i­cal, ul­tra-se­cre­tive and im­mensely pow­er­ful busi­ness­men who Harold Wil­son fa­mously blamed in the 1960s for push­ing down the value of ster­ling through spec­u­lat­ing.

All this eff iciency is un­der­pinned by a trans­port in­fra­struc­ture that would make the av­er­age cen­tral Scot­tish com­muter weep. Basel, the gate­way to Switzer­land has the EuroAir­port Basel-Mul­house-Freiburg just 3km be­yond the city lim­its while the Rhine harbours in Basel rep­re­sent one of the most im­por­tant in­land harbours in Europe. The re­gion is also a key hub link­ing the French, Swiss and Ger­man rail­way net­works. with in­ter­na­tional ex­press trains, in­ter­city ser­vices and re­gional ur­ban routes com­ing to­gether and the Ger­man, French and Swiss mo­tor­way sys­tems link up in the city.

Here is a small ex­am­ple of how Swiss trans­port works in prac­tice. On a visit in Au­gust, the jour­ney from the Alpine vil­lage of Saas Fee near the Ital­ian border to Zurich Air­port took four hours. It be­gan by post bus, and in­volved a change of train in Bern.

When Heidi, the ex­tremely ef­fi­cient lady who had booked the trip told me I had ten min­utes to make the train trans­fer my dis­be­lief was clearly ev­i­dent. “It’s fine, you’ll make it,”she said con­fi­dently. The bus was on time and as the train pulled into Bern it was less than one minute late, al­low­ing a leisurely stroll to the next plat­form. In fact, the only de­lay of the day was the 45-minute crawl along the M8 into Glas­gow.

Saas Fee it­self, a blos­som­ing ski re­sort is the pic­ture post­card side of Switzer­land. There are 14 peaks of more than 4000m vis­i­ble from the vil­lage, in­clud­ing the Dom, at 4545m the high­est peak in in the coun­try, tow­er­ing to a slim, ta­per­ing pyra­mid above the ho­tel room bal­cony, where even in high sum­mer you can watch the dra­matic shift of clouds on the high Alpine snow­fields.

Be­low, but still at 1800 me­tres, it’s 30 de­grees in the sun­shine as the Fee­gletscher (glacier) creeps down the val­ley.

Saas Fee’s in­tro­duc­tion to the 20th cen­tury was sud­den. Though the Dom Ho­tel threw its larch­wood doors open to wealthy ad­ven­tur­ers – most of them Bri­tish – in 1890 it wasn’t un­til 1951 that the first paved road, pre­car­i­ously hug­ging the val­ley sides, snaked and looped up to the vil­lage.

De­spite the ev­i­dence of much com­mer­cial de­vel­op­ment, un­like us who throw up anony­mous con­crete shacks, the vil­lage clev­erly con­forms to strict rules that dic­tate pitched roofs and tim­bered fa­cades.

Like many other things the Swiss keep the best to them­selves. The wine, for ex­am­ple, is a reve­la­tion and also an un­sung busi­ness suc­cess. Only 1% of wine from the Valais re­gion is ex­ported, but with 10,000 small wine mak­ers and 50 grape va­ri­eties there’s no short­age of choice. Look be­yond the pleas­ant but bland Fen­dant to Heida, made in the lit­tle ter­raced vine­yards be­tween Visp and Vis­pert­er­mi­nen, the high­est winer­ies in Europe.

It’s de­li­cious irony that while oth­ers are rush­ing head­long into the bu­reau­cratic fold of Brus­sels, in Switzer­land, at the very heart of the con­ti­nent they greet you with “sa­lut”, thank you with “merci”, leave with “ciao” and speak Ger­man in be­tween.

That said the coun­try’s tra­di­tional cos­mopoli­tan out­look is be­ing tem­pered with a grow­ing un­der­cur­rent of re­sent­ment about im­mi­grata­tion, which re­sulted in a Septem­ber ref­er­en­dum that gave Switzer­land some of the strictest asy­lum rules in Europe. Maybe the Swiss are not so dif­fer­ent from the rest of us af­ter all.

Si­mul­ta­ne­ous light­ning strikes in Zurich dur­ing June this year

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.