India-European Free Trade Association deal | $100-billion investment target was breakthrough moment: Swiss official

EFTA negotiator cautions that actual investment can only come from European private sector, not guaranteed by governments, and hopes FTA will be ratified by 2024-end

Updated - March 10, 2024 11:51 pm IST

Published - March 10, 2024 11:00 pm IST - NEW DELHI:

Switzerland State Secretary for Economic Affairs Helene Budliger. File

Switzerland State Secretary for Economic Affairs Helene Budliger. File | Photo Credit: The Hindu

Expressing confidence that the EFTA bloc of four countries Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland would be able to reach the target set by the India-EFTA Free trade agreement of $100 bn investment and 1 million jobs, one of the deal’s top negotiators cautioned that investment would come from the private sectors, and governments could only encourage and facilitate the outcomes. Speaking to The Hindu after successfully concluding the deal, Helene Budliger Artieda, the Swiss State Secretary for Economic Affairs, said that agreeing on the investment chapter was a “breakthrough moment” for negotiations on the Trade and Economic Partnership Agreement. Excerpts:

Also read | What are the key details of India’s pact with the European Free Trade Association?

Did you think this deal would happen before Indian elections?

 Yes. I mean, you can never be 100% sure, because of course, none of us were alone in the room. But I really felt sincere interest, trust and friendship [between India and EFTA negotiators]. The breakthrough moment was when we decided that we will do this chapter on direct investment, because then all of a sudden, there was a sense that we could really have a fair and balanced deal, which would be win, win… five times win (for all five parties).

When it comes to that chapter, how binding are the commitments to invest $100 billion and ensure 1 million jobs? 

I can tell you that from companies in Switzerland and others that we have spoken to, there is massive interest in India. We reached the figure of $100 billion through a method: taking a base of FDI in 2022 — which is U.S. $10.7 billion, and GDP projections provided by India, as well as the massive market here. The fact that the EFTA bloc managed to seal the deal even before our European neighbour (EU) has heightened the interest in India. But I have to be very clear. It’s not the Swiss government that will do the investment, but the Swiss private sector. And you know, if, for some reason, this promise [of $100 billion and 1 million jobs is not realised, we will have to face the consequences of going back to square one], when we had no easy market access. 

Do you also hope to negotiate a Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) to protect the investments? 

It would have been difficult to negotiate a BIT as well as the TEPA before the elections, but I am positive that we will be able to begin discussions on an investment treaty soon. The framework conditions for the investment chapter are important — a whole list of things that need to come in place on creating the environment for investments. We hope to open a designated desk at Invest India and to have an Invest India office in Switzerland. 

How long before the TEPA goes into force?

Well, each of the countries has a different time span and ratification process. In Switzerland, we hope to bring the agreement for ratification by parliament in the autumn session, so hopefully [we could ratify] by the end of the year and bring the agreement into force thereafter. We expect other EFTA countries would also have completed their processes by then. 

How did you agree to drop the data exclusivity clause eventually?

Data Exclusivity clause was in a draft text was never agreed upon. We would have loved to have that in the agreement, because Intellectual Property Rights issue is absolutely key and strategic for us. We don’t have a lot of land in Switzerland, and not many natural resources aside from water. So, for us, intellectual property is a bread and butter issue, like agriculture is for India. However, we were happy that India was able to meet us halfway with the working Patents regime. India is now on its way to become a very innovative country and so we hope that IPR for R&D will be more important. 

How do you respond to the accusation that Switzerland attempted to bully India to accept the data exclusivity clause, which, if adopted, would have made important generic medicines more expensive to produce?

How could a country of nine million people bully a G-20 country of 1.4 billion?  We negotiated our position with Indian negotiators, who are very good. I do regret that a draft text was leaked here in India, but that had not been agreed upon.

What are the human rights issues EFTA countries will focus on in the Trade Sustainability chapter?

Sustainability for us is all three levels: environment, social and governance and all were very key to both sides. On climate change, India wanted to incorporate language from the Paris accord. EFTA countries are focussed on labour issues, particularly child labour and modern slavery (bonded labour). And India proposed language on gender. By coincidence we were negotiating in Delhi and met Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal in Parliament just as the Women’s Reservations Bill was being passed, and so that was the context for adding language on gender.

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