Discussions between President of the Swiss Confederation Didier Burkhalter and Philippe, King of the Belgians, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Didier Reynders in Brussels centred around the current situation in Ukraine, as well as the role of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in Europe (OSCE) in efforts to find a political solution to the conflict. President Burkhalter emphasised the great importance of the OSCE observer mission to Ukraine to maintain a chance of de-escalating the crisis. Other OSCE-related topics included the Ministerial Council to be held in Basel on 4-5 December 2014, as well as possible forms of cooperation between the OSCE and the Council of Europe, the chairmanship of which Belgium assumed yesterday, 13 November 2014.
The talks also covered bilateral issues. Switzerland and Belgium enjoy a close relationship. Belgium is Switzerland's eleventh-largest trading partner, with volumes between the two states reaching just under CHF 10 billion in 2013. Shared visa representations abroad are further evidence of close collaboration between the two countries, with Switzerland representing Belgium in Ghana and Sri Lanka, and Belgium receiving visa applications for Switzerland in Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi and Rwanda.
The possibility of closer cooperation on scientific ventures – specifically polar research – was also addressed. Switzerland is currently looking into involvement in the Belgian-led Princess Elisabeth Antarctica polar research station.
In addition, President Burkhalter briefed King Philippe, Prime Minister Michel, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Reynders on Switzerland's policy on the EU, in particular about developments in connection with the new article on immigration in the Swiss constitution. He also emphasised the need for a discussion with the EU on migration.
Commemoration of First World War dead in West Flanders
In the afternoon, President Burkhalter will view a First World War trench system at the town of Ypres in West Flanders. The visit is intended to highlight that the many dead of the Great War cannot simply be reduced to a statistic, but that each casualty represents the story of a human life, with its visions, hopes and fears. Pupils from schools in Morges, Liestal and Tenero will also be present at the trenches on Hill 62. These three classes – one from each of Switzerland's language regions – submitted winning projects in the schools' competition on the First World War that was launched by President Burkhalter in March 2014 (see press release of 7 November 2014). All of the projects that were entered in the competition demonstrate the importance of learning about the period and the events of the First World War, as a key element of a commitment to security and stability in the future.
With the school classes, President Burkhalter will attend a reception hosted by the Mayor of Ypres, Jan Durnez, to discuss the classes' projects. Accompanied by the Minister-President of Flanders, Geert Bourgeois, everyone will then take part in the Last Post ceremony of remembrance. Conducted every evening at 8 pm since 2 July 1928, the Last Post honours the fallen and unidentified soldiers of the Commonwealth and also preserves the memory of all the suffering and the victims of the First World War. President Burkhalter views this event, and the visit to West Flanders in general, as symbolic of the ongoing need to do everything possible to avoid violent conflict and to secure peace.
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