September 20, 2017 / 12:34 PM / a year ago

Presumed new Swiss foreign minister seeks fresh start in EU talks

ZURICH (Reuters) - Switzerland’s putative new foreign minister called on Wednesday for a fresh start to tortuous talks on cementing ties with the European Union, the neutral country’s most important trading partner.

Parliament elected Ignazio Cassis, 56, as the first minister in 18 years from the Italian-speaking Swiss canton of Ticino. He is likely to be named Switzerland’s top diplomat when the four-party coalition government allots portfolios on Friday.

The polyglot physician and member of the pro-business Liberal Democrats is to replace Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter, who announced in June he would resign.

Should Cassis get the foreign ministry - Swiss cabinet members get to pick their portfolios by order of seniority - he will be point man in navigating several open political and economic issues with the EU.

Brussels wants a comprehensive “framework” treaty to replace the patchwork of more than 100 bilateral accords that now govern ties. But mainstream Swiss parties have got cold feet about the idea ahead of Britain’s divorce talks with the EU.

Cassis - who raised eyebrows in his acceptance speech by citing Marxist theorist Rosa Luxemburg’s comments on respecting people with different opinions - said it was time to abandon a “poisoned” vocabulary in the debate about EU links.

“We must have the courage to make a new start,” he told reporters, noting no one knew in detail what a framework treaty would entail as the partners seek to redefine relations.

“Words shape reality, and when reality has become poisoned by words then you have to change the words,” he said.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have said a new treaty is the price of any more trade deals with Switzerland.

Last year, the Alpine state narrowly avoided a clash with the EU over a 2014 referendum vote for EU immigration quotas when parliament enacted a system of giving hiring preference to anyone registered with Swiss unemployment offices.

Swiss reluctance to follow through on a new accord in the window before the EU’s negotiations with Britain start in earnest threatens to put relations into a deep chill that could stall progress on unresolved trade issues.

The eurosceptic Swiss People’s Party, the country’s largest, has opposed any new treaty that gives the European Court of Justice a role in settling disputes.

Reporting by Michael Shields; editing by Mark Heinrich

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