The Prize of the Fondation pour Genève

1450 people! That’s how many people there were announced by the Fondation pour Genève Secretariat at the Fondation pour Genève Secretariat on Monday at 1.30pm. “We’re full to the rafters. We need to close the doors!” shouted the head of registration. The figure highlights not only the continued success of the Fondation pour Genève Prize but also the charisma and popularity of Didier Burkhalter.

As a matter of fact, the people who were packing themselves into the famous Assembly Hall also came to pay tribute to the president’s politics. As we know, his politics go hand in hand with International Geneva. A shiver went through the assembly when Didier Burkhalter opened his speech: “This city is a gift for Switzerland. This city is a gift for the world!”

The praise continued from Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations (UN) and friend of the Federal Councillor, Sami Kanaan, Mayor of Geneva and François Longchamp, President of the State Council (“You have belligerent patience!”) For the first time in its forty years of existence, the Foundation has awarded the Prize to the acting president.

The Prize was exceptionally awarded in recognition of the winner’s work towards International Geneva. Didier Burkhalter has made Geneva the heart of the Federal Council’s foreign politics strategy. As he puts it: “For the first time in twenty years, we have adopted a joint strategy with the canton and City of Geneva.”

So, who is Didier Burkhalter? A shooting star in the political sky! His passion for public affairs goes back to when he was little and his father was the President of Auvernier Council in the Neuchâtel canton. “Didier has always been an extremely organised person,” says Christian Kauter, former PLR general secretary who worked closely with him. “He was always glued to his files. You could never collar him, he has great foresight!”

He’s pragmatic: the head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAE) is constantly resolving problems. He’s knowledgeable; he researches the consensus, a cardinal virtue.

When he was elected to the Federal Council, Didier Burkhalter wore the embarrassed smile of a man who hates having a fuss made over him. His team love working for someone who sees his job as a vocation. He leaves his ego at the door and works for the people. “I always knew he was born to be a federal councillor!” says Gabi Huber, President of the radical liberal group. “He’s an intelligent, sensitive and modest man.”

Countless people say that he embodies the typically Swiss values of neutrality, tolerance, discretion and humanity. For example, Blaise Roulet, a key member of the State Secretariat for training, research and innovation who has known Didier Burkhalter for decades: “He has always wanted to work for his country. Not for personal gain but because of his belief that the Swiss state should play on the international field.” Didier Burkhalter himself says: “In Swiss politics, the institutions are more important than the politicians.”

Charismatic with no lack of charm or humour, Didier Burkhalter isn’t interested in waffle. He has got his colleagues into the habit of having an informal coffee before each weekly Federal Council meeting, no matter how long it lasts, to get them out of their party or head of department mindset and put themselves into a federal councillor frame of mind.

He gets his sense of teamwork from football which he keenly played for Neuchâtel Xamax in every position apart from goalkeeper. His favourite position was sweeper: “You manage, you have a vision of the game before you, you pick the others up and you can go everywhere. There isn’t a day goes by that I don’t think about football.”

This year’s events have seen Didier Burkhalter meet Vladimir Putin on three occasions who agreed to the roadmap put forward by Switzerland. He aligned the capitals at the double including Vienna, Berlin, Washington, Kiev, Moscow and Brussels. His diary is crazy. As President for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), he has agreed to requests from journalists all over the world but refused to parade himself on CNN. He hopes that these many initiatives will produce positive results in the Switzerland-European Union arena.

Didier Burkhalter is behind a new drive to promote International Geneva in which major ministerial conferences on Iran and Syria have taken place. As we know, the city is a symbol for the promotion of peace, human rights and international cooperation.

The Fondation pour Genève has used the Prize to recognise a diplomat who works to strengthen relationships between Switzerland and the European Union, particularly with our neighbours, and develop strategic partnerships with the main emerging powers and globalisation figures in a series of key areas of international life. The proof? Didier Burkhalter’s work as President of the OSCE.

Since 1976, the Prix de la Fondation pour Genève has honored individuals, wether Genevan by birth or by adoption, and institutionsfor their contribution to furthering the city's reputation in Switzerland and across the world in the fields of science, politics, economics, culture and humanitarian action.

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