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«The pandemic is giving us the impetus to broaden the basic issues in information protection.»

The pandemic has largely physically shut down the usually busy Brussels, and many events are now taking place virtually. During the first wave last spring, no personal meetings or sessions were possible due to the lockdown restrictions in Belgium, which were stricter than in Switzerland. However, these meetings form a large part of the work of André Gsell. Find out more about this unusual situation in Brussels in his detailed report.

Romy Joller, specialist area Communications, Resources and Support; André Gsell, Armament Affairs, FDFA Brussels


Portrait of André Gsell

Brief profile

Together with his job partner Eva Herrmann, André Gsell represents the interests of armasuisse in Brussels. While Eva Herrmann liases with the European Defence Agency at the Swiss Mission to the EU, André Gsell represents and substitutes for the National Armaments Director as the Swiss representative in the NATO Conference of National Armaments Directors. Due to his job partner’s maternity leave, he is currently performing both roles.

The pandemic has largely physically shut down the usually busy Brussels, and many events are now taking place virtually. Multilateral armaments cooperation was faced with a situation where no more personal meetings or sessions were possible. Since the first lockdown there have been short periods when meetings were possible, but planning is only possible to a limited extent and the rules in the individual countries from which the participants travel to Brussels are constantly changing.

Since the summer, many sessions have been taking place in the form of conference calls or virtual meetings – usually with digital communications tools like Zoom, Webex and Microsoft Teams. Because confidentiality is not guaranteed under these circumstances, and complex attacks on these exchanges are much more scalable, content has adjusted and become less relevant. This leads to the quality of meetings fluctuating. Some communication tools are not stable enough, particularly in meetings with large numbers of participants, and important opportunities for maintaining networks on the sidelines of meetings are missed. The greatest challenge is that we either have no access to the existing secure networks of the EU and NATO or that the tools are not suitable for larger events. Accordingly, we are currently analysing what options are available to meet this need as soon as possible.

Dialogue with our counterparts on location in Brussels is also restricted.

Everyone is unusually restrained and you have to find creative ideas to lure people out of their shells.

At the level of ambassadors, for example, virtual lunches have taken place, with courses delivered locally to participants’ home addresses – a logistical challenge. At our level, instead of meeting for a coffee in NATO headquarters we currently get together to share a walk in a park, build up some kind of familiarity in a virtual meeting or even sometimes just abandon an enquiry altogether.

The travel restrictions also heavily impacted my business trips in 2020. Generally, my job partner and I travel every 6-8 weeks or so on business in Switzerland and to other locations in Europe for meetings and to keep up contacts. In addition, there are private visits and in particular trips for my military services. 2020 was a radically different experience in this regard. With trips to contacts no longer taking up any time, sometimes it can be easier to go into matters in depth. We were able to finalise several major outstanding issues in 2020. For example, the C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) Framework Agreement with NCIA (the NATO Communications and Information Agency) and the Federal Council’s decision to take part in the European Defence Agency’s Helicopter Exercise Programme.

The pandemic is giving us a strong impetus to broaden the basic issues in information protection.


The pandemic is presenting us all with many different challenges. For me personally, the greatest professional challenge is the planning uncertainty, which means that we currently need to have a plan B and C ready for every occasion. This forces us to be more meticulous in our planning, so we can react flexibly to the new position when the situation changes: even if no plans survive the pandemic unaffected, the process of reflection is helpful in dealing with risks and searching for alternatives to reach the objective as quickly as possible in spite of everything.

I also had a few things to cope with in my private life. My wife and I had a second child during the pandemic. Even in normal circumstances this would have meant an adjustment – during the pandemic, abroad and together in a job-sharing team, it was a particular challenge for us. We are happy that everything has worked out well.

In conclusion, it is worth highlighting a few of the positive aspects brought about by this crisis. Firstly, the importance of basic groundwork has once again been made clear to me, particularly when it comes to protecting information. This rather dry topic has taken on a new urgency as a result of the pandemic, specifically to make new ways of working together possible. Secondly, both the opportunities and the shortcomings of digitalisation in our everyday office life have become very apparent. While I am grateful for new skills, I also realise that both we personally and our systems can develop further. And with regard to our working model, we are even more convinced after the crisis that we have found an attractive solution for all those involved which has proved to be stable and flexible.