The COVID-19 crisis was the main topic of the talks between Mr Cassis and the foreign ministers of Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg. State Secretary and head of the Directorate for European Affairs Roberto Balzaretti also took part in the videoconference.
Close cooperation to manage the crisis
Mr Cassis emphasised that a crisis of this magnitude affecting all of Europe can only be tackled together. In recent weeks, he noted, Switzerland has taken in patients from French hospitals and sent personal protective equipment to Italy. Switzerland has also benefited from its close integration in EU crisis management efforts and regular bilateral consultations with EU states. This cooperation has proven to be a key asset in managing the crisis. "COVID-19 is at present still a health crisis. But the pandemic is already triggering an economic and financial crisis, and the necessary measures being taken to stem it will lead to a social crisis," said Cassis. "That's why now is the time to think about the best way out of the crisis and the steps we need to take in the coming weeks". Non-pharmaceutical interventions (social distancing) to stem the spread of the pandemic ought to be eased in a coordinated manner as soon as possible in order to ensure a phased return to normality and at the same time stave off a new wave of infections.
Repatriation of European citizens
Mr Cassis also spoke about Switzerland's role in the repatriation flights to bring home Swiss citizens and other Europeans. Over 30 repatriation flights have been carried out since the crisis began. In addition to Swiss nationals, Switzerland has organised the repatriation of 1,870 EU citizens, including 458 Germans, 151 Austrians and 16 Luxembourgers. Some 655 Swiss citizens have been able to return home on flights organised by Germany, Austria and Luxembourg. Mr Cassis expressed his thanks for the excellent cooperation, direct communication and "solidarity in practice" that made these flights possible.
The German-speaking countries were working closely together and regularly exchanging information long before the COVID-19 crisis, and continue to do so in areas unrelated to the pandemic. Mr Cassis and his counterparts also discussed the difficult situation of migrants and refugees in the Greek-Turkish border region, stressed the importance of multilateral cooperation and the role of the UN in times of crisis, and conferred about Germany's upcoming EU Council presidency against the backdrop of the pandemic, as well as digital forms of communication that will be required. The foreign ministers agreed that Swiss-EU bilateral relations should be closely coordinated during the German presidency.
The first annual meeting of foreign ministers from German-speaking countries took place in 2006. The aim of the meetings is to preserve and strengthen the excellent relations between Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg. This is necessary – as the COVID-19 pandemic has shown – to ensure seamless cooperation even in times of crisis. Mr Cassis also invited his counterparts to meet in Switzerland next year.
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