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Home / Politics / Policy /  Focus on free trade deal, black money in Swiss minister’s visit

New Delhi: Swiss economic affairs minister Johann N. Schneider-Ammann’s visit to India on 15 May could see the two countries enhance cooperation through a proposed free trade pact and also improve coordination to locate black money.

Schneider-Ammann, head of the federal department for economic affairs, education and research, is one of the seven members of the federal council or the Swiss cabinet. He will be the country’s first cabinet minister to visit India after Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in May last year, said a statement by the Swiss embassy in New Delhi on Monday.

A 15-member business delegation and three members of the Swiss Cantonal (state) governments are likely to accompany the minister, who will meet commerce minister Nirmala Sitharaman and skill development minister Rajiv Pratap Rudy in Delhi.

Talks with the commerce minister are likely to focus on a free trade pact between India and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), which groups Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. This is apart from a pact that India is negotiating with the 28-member European Union.

The EFTA deal is stuck due to differences over intellectual property rights, but the Swiss government was hopeful of a breakthrough, a report by news agency PTI from Geneva last week said.

“The negotiations on certain issues like tariffs and non-tariff measures were promising. Unfortunately, concerning other important issues like intellectual property and data security, the positions diverge widely," the news report quoted Isabel Herkommer, spokesperson for the state secretariat for economic affairs, as saying.

The trade talks, which began in 2008, for trade in goods, services and investments, have been stalled due to strong objections from the Swiss pharmaceutical industry, the PTI report said.

The minister, on 16 May, will also travel to Bengaluru, where several Swiss companies have offices, said Swiss ambassador Linus von Castelmur.

More than 200 Swiss companies are present in India. Many Swiss multinational companies, such as ABB Ltd, UBS AG and Credit Suisse Group AG, have their offshore research and development projects with Indian companies or operate through their subsidiary operations in India.

Pharma companies such as Novartis AG and Roche Holding AG are expanding their base in India. These companies together have created over 100,000 jobs in India, according to Swiss data quoted by the Indian foreign ministry.

Switzerland is among the top five European investment destinations for Indian firms, which have invested $1.2 billion between 2012 and 2014.

Another critical issue that could come up for talks between the two nations is the untaxed money stashed by Indians in Swiss banks. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said in a 2011 report that Indians had $250 billion in banks in Switzerland. The recovery of the money had been one of the BJP’s main campaign planks during the 2014 general election.

Switzerland has in the past said that it is cooperating with India on the issue, though it has refused to share details of bank accounts because of its strict banking secrecy laws, unless India seeks specific information based on its own investigations.

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