Building Bridges, Creating Dialogues & Strategic Partnerships
Venetia van Kuffeler meets the Swiss economist and diplomat who was recently elected Chairman of the Association of Economic Representatives in London, Nicholas C. Niggli
1. How long have you been in London and is there anything particularly interesting or surprising you have found about your work in the city so far?
I have had the honour to be posted in London for almost two years. At the Embassy, I’m in charge of the economic, finance, trade, science and innovation aspects of the relationship between Switzerland and the UK, and I also supervise our business hub in charge of export and location promotion. With the help of a great team, my task is to build bridges, to create new opportunities and, from time to time, to help to solve problems, although Switzerland and the UK rarely have cause for disagreement. The cooperation between our two countries does indeed run deep and is excellent, overall.
I expected London to be a very interesting city to live and work in and haven’t been disappointed in the slightest. London is vibrant, bustling, multicultural and marries proud tradition with staggering modernity and innovation. London offers an incredible diversity of platforms to create new links and opportunities to engage and exchange with the global political, economic and intellectual elite. For those who want to build and craft, it is quite clearly an extraordinary terrain.
Coming from a multilateral trade negotiation background, where work is about building intricate coalitions and moving forward with complex negotiations, I was surprised to discover that bilateral diplomacy can be equally rich and multifaceted. My chairmanship of the Association of Economic Representatives in London (AERL) only adds to that!
2. Can you tell us more about the AERL’s goals?
The AERL is proud to provide London’s diplomatic community with a valued platform for dialogue between high-level representatives of industry, policy-makers, academics and government. Bringing together more than 250 diplomats and officials dealing with economic, trade, finance, science, innovation and business promotion, the AERL builds bridges and opens doors that would be much harder for members to access if they are working alone. The Association believes that the diversity of its global membership is its most important asset. Emphasising the essential ‘human dimension’ in both diplomacy and business, the AERL gives thought, business and political leaders a unique opportunity to address and exchange views with its diverse membership.
My predecessor Georg Karabaczek did a superb job in steering the Association. When he passed me the torch last September, I committed to building on his excellent work, with the help of a strong team reflecting the diversity of London’s diplomatic community. The untapped potential of the AERL is indeed still vast and very exciting.
3. What are the objectives of the AERL beyond networking? What have been your main plans and priorities as its Chair?
In my opinion, the winning recipe for the AERL is to marry tradition and innovation. Traditionally, the Association has been about creating dialogues and hearing from inspirational people about the great work they do in London. Networking has always been an important aspect of the Association’s life, especially as we can act as a door opener: for big missions it is easy to gain access to key people at the highest level, but for others it can be incredibly difficult. The Association creates fantastic leverage.
Having said that, I’m convinced we must also innovate to get the AERL to the next stage. To offer supplementary added value to our members, we are in the process of creating strategic partnerships with complementary organisations in London. As a result, our members will have the opportunity to access other networks through the AERL’s strategic partnerships in the not-so-distant future. This will hopefully facilitate our membership’s work, especially on the commercial side, while hopefully also offering value to our strategic partners on the way. I’ve recently started talks with my counterparts from diverse organisations in London. While it is somewhat early to make a vast range of spectacular announcements at this stage, steady progress is being made across the board. Our website
(aerlondon.org.uk) will soon open its partnership page, appropriately reflecting those steps.
4. What do you think has been the most memorable day or event of your career to date?
I’m very fortunate, because I have been involved in several fascinating, complex and successful negotiations as well as mediation processes on my professional path. To single one out is therefore relatively difficult, but if I really have to do so, I think 15 December 2011 stands out as the most memorable day in my career, so far. After five years of stewardship as WTO Government Procurement Agreement (GPA) Chairman, this was the day I finally managed to conclude a decade-long negotiation to improve the internationally agreed disciplines for this key sector of the world economy and expand the market access coverage valued at $US100 billion/year. Sitting on the podium and being able to proclaim: “It is agreed” was a special feeling indeed. I was truly relieved to see the collective effort being successfully concluded after a long and most difficult journey. [Nicholas still keeps the ceremonial mallet on his desk.]
Involving 42 different WTO Members, the process was indeed fairly complex from a planning, management, strategic, tactical and timing perspective. This milestone creates many positive perspectives for a great variety of countries around the world. The end result is significant because we transformed an older, one-size-fits-all agreement into an upgraded bespoke legal arrangement which allows us to welcome countries from all levels of development and reflects the twenty-first century reality. The GPA has enormous potential to help create more inclusive and development-friendly institutions by creating transparency, openness, better governance and sounder and more efficient use of public resources. By doing so, the GPA helps to close the infrastructure gap, generate growth and jobs, and alleviate poverty.
5. Are there any particular hobbies that you enjoy?
I’m passionate about sports in general and love uphill cycling, basketball, rock climbing and chess in particular. When I was young(er), I did quite a bit of competitive sport, which taught me how to be mentally strong, resilient, disciplined and well organised. Coaching children and adults for over 20 years has taught me many valuable lessons on the art of leadership, motivation, fair play and getting the best out of people.
Travelling off the beaten track has allowed me to learn a great deal from other cultures and to understand the true value of diversity. Over the years, I have developed a great passion for art, books, photography and music linked to cultural diversity. Last but not least, I am married with three young children. Between us we speak four languages at home (French, English, Swiss-German and Russian), which allows for an interesting variety to our discussions and deliberations.
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