Switzerland: Geneva summit stirs memories of 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev meeting

Wednesday's talks between US President Joe Biden and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin evoke vivid memories of the 1985 Geneva summit, when Cold War rivals Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met for the very first time.

Switzerland: Geneva summit stirs memories of 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev meeting
US President Ronald Reagan (L) with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev

The November weather in the Swiss city may have been chilly, but relations began to thaw between Washington and Moscow as the US president and the Soviet leader came face to face on neutral territory.

Now some 36 years on, Biden and Putin are holding decidedly less hopeful talks on the placid shores of Lake Geneva, even as history weighs on them.

Back in 1985, “the atmosphere was relaxed… They had both lined something up to seduce the other camp,” said former AFP correspondent Didier Lapeyronie, who covered the Reagan-Gorbachev talks.

“At the same time, we were all aware that it was a historic moment.”

And yet the encounter was preceded with what could have been an ill omen. Just before US president Reagan arrived at one of the summit locations, a Swiss soldier waiting in the ceremonial honour guard fainted, overcome by the bitter cold.

Six years before the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union, the 1985 Geneva summit focused on de-escalating the nuclear arms race between the two superpowers, and came with hopes of fostering better East-West relations.

The three-day summit was covered by 3,500 journalists.

Nicolas Burgy, who was at Geneva Airport for AFP to report on the Reagans’ arrival, recalls the sense of “joy” in the air.

“There was a casual sort of feeling,” he said. 

Fireside chat

One of the most enduring images from the summit is a photograph of the two most powerful men on the planet sitting beside a fireplace and smiling at each other from their armchairs in what could be a cosy fireside chat between two old friends.

The conviviality extended to their wives Raisa Gorbacheva and Nancy Reagan, who chatted over tea under the gaze of photographers.

Marie-Noelle Blessig, charged with following the wives’ programme for AFP, remembers seeing Gorbacheva paying a visit to the United Nations’ Geneva headquarters “to greet staff at the UN, where she was received with loud applause”.

Another sign of the thaw was the first handshake between Gorbachev and Reagan, which lasted seven seconds.

The historic moment took place in front of the Villa Fleur d’Eau, a late 19th-century mansion on the shores of Lake Geneva.

The villa is currently up for sale.

The handshake took place before freezing photographers and reporters who stood waiting in the garden in the bitter cold.

As the Americans had chosen the large villa for day one of the talks, Reagan was there first to welcome Gorbachev, “seemingly in very good spirits”, said Claude Smadja, a former deputy editor of Switzerland’s TSR television, who witnessed the moment.

“Straight away there was the very American, very Californian side of Reagan, shaking Gorbachev’s hand, putting his other hand on his shoulder to usher him inside, and the exchange of smiles.

“The two wanted to show that they were very much at ease.”

Awe-inspiring moment

It was only when Gorbachev arrived at the villa that Christiane Berthiaume, who worked for Radio Canada, realised the importance of the moment.

“Not a single journalist asked him a question when he got out of the car. We were all simply speechless. It was awe-inspiring,” said Berthiaume, who later became a spokeswoman for various UN agencies.

The fact that the Soviet leader was there for a summit with the US president “was a sign that the Cold War, a period marked by fear, was coming to an end”.

In a sign of how high the stakes were, the US and Soviet delegations decided to impose a “total blackout” on updating the media until the end of the summit.

“In fact, despite the personal warmth, the initial encounter was very harsh. The two sides’ positions were very far apart,” said Smadja, who went on to become the World Economic Forum’s managing director.

Hosts Switzerland were also well aware of the gulf between the two superpowers — so much so that the Swiss president Kurt Furgler’s assistant Walter Fust had to prepare for his boss “two different welcoming speeches, taking into account the different cultures”.

The cultural divide was also evident in the formality of the two delegations, Fust told AFP. “The Russian participants arrived in formation; very disciplined.

The Americans were less strict on following instructions and the protocol order,” he said.

Meanwhile Nancy Reagan, he added, wanted to replace the bottles of mineral water provided with US ones, and also wanted an aide to try out her food before she did.

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Air-con, ties and lights: How Europe plans to save energy and get through winter without blackouts

In the face of possible energy shortages due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, countries around Europe are taking action to cut their energy use and ensure that the lights remain on this winter. Here's a look at some of the rules and recommendations that governments are introducing.

Air-con, ties and lights: How Europe plans to save energy and get through winter without blackouts

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and ensuing sanctions has seen energy prices soar, while the Russian leader is also threatening to cut off gas supplies to the west in retaliation for the sanctions.

All this means that countries around Europe face a difficult winter and the prospect of energy shortages – so many are already taking action to stockpile gas and cut energy usage.

Here’s a roundup of what actions are being taken. 


Heavily dependant on Russian gas, Germany is already feeling the effects of the energy squeeze, with many households and businesses turning down the thermostat or dimming the lights as gas storage facilities are being filled at a slower pace.

RulesEarly in July, Germany’s lower house of parliament or Bundestag passed a plan to turn off the hot water in its offices and keep the air temperature no higher than 20C in the winter. This limit is merely recommended for households.

However homeowners will not be allowed to heat private pools with gas “this winter”, according to government plans, while a regulation requiring minimum temperatures in rented homes is expected to be suspended “so that tenants who want to save energy and turn down the heating are allowed to do so”.

As well as national rules, many German cities have also adopted their own energy-savings plans.

The Bavarian city of Augsburg, for example, has turned off its fountains, dimmed the facades of public buildings at night and is debating switching off some under-used traffic lights – and a housing cooperative in Dresden made national headlines when it announced it would limit hot water to certain times of day.

With certain exceptions, public buildings in Berlin will not have heating from April to the end of September each year, with room temperatures limited to a maximum of 20C for the rest of the year. In areas such as warehouses, technical rooms, corridors, the maximum will range from 10 to 15C.

Private enterprise has been getting in on the act too – Vonovia, Germany’s largest property group, plans to limit the temperature in its 350,000 homes to a maximum of 17C at night.

The head of consumer chemicals group Henkel has said that work-from-home practices may be reintroduced, while chemicals giant BASF has raised the possibility of putting its employees on furlough.

Recommendations – Economy Minister Robert Habeck has made headlines for extolling the virtues of shorter, colder showers.


France has an ambitious plan to cut its energy usage by 10 percent within two years and a government plan for sobriété énergétique (energy sobriety) is expected by September.

In the meantime, some rules have already been put in place while there are also some official recommendations. The general principle is that changes will be obligatory for government buildings and businesses, but voluntary for private households. 

Rules – In 2013, a law obliging businesses to switch off outside lights by 1am came into force. That deadline may be brought forward and towns and villages may have to switch off streetlights earlier – some areas have already taken this decision.

Shops that have air conditioning may not leave their doors open, so that less energy is lost.

Limits have been suggested for heating and air conditioning – keep heating to a maximum of 19C and air con to a minimum of 26C at the height of summer. The Prime Minister says she ‘expects’ government buildings to show an example and adhere to these, but they are voluntary for households.

Meanwhile, the heads of large supermarket chains in France have made a voluntary agreement for all stores to employ energy-saving techniques, such as turning off electric signs at closing times, reducing light usage, and managing store temperatures, from October 15th this year. They will also cut lighting by half before opening time, and by 30 percent during “critical consumption periods”.

Additionally, they will “cut off air renewal at night” and “lower the temperature in outlets to 17C this autumn and winter, if requested by a regulatory authority”.

Recommendations – The government has urged individuals to adopt energy-saving practices – by switching off wifi routers when on holiday, turning off lights, unplugging electric appliances when not in use, and lowering the air-con.

France’s energy transition minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher has urged people to keep heating to a maximum of 19C and air con to a minimum of 26C at the height of summer.


Spain has introduced perhaps the most wide-ranging set of rules in its new energy-saving bill, which comes into force on August 10th.

Public buildings as well as shops, restaurants, cafés, supermarkets, transport hubs and cultural spaces must:

  • Set heating and cooling temperatures to limits of 19C and 27C respectively;
  • Install doors that automatically close by September 30th to prevent energy waste, as can happen with regular doors that are left open;
  • Lights in shop windows must be turned off by 10pm;
  • Posters must be put up to explain the energy saving measures in every building or establishment, and thermometers must be displayed to show the temperature and humidity of the room.

READ ALSO: Is it realistic for Spain to set the air con limit at 27C during summer?

Recommendations – the above rules do not apply to private homes, but it is recommended to follow the heating and cooling limits.

Meanwhile, working from home is recommended for large companies and public administration buildings to help “save on the displacement and thermal consumption of buildings”, Spain’s Minister for Ecological Transition Teresa Ribera said.

And have you thought about your outfit? Here’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez explaining why he’s ditching his tie to stay a little bit cooler.


Back in April the Italian government approved limits on the use of air conditioning in public offices and schools from May 1st, to save energy and wean itself off reliance on Russian gas imports.

At the time Ministers said that Italy would be able to end its reliance on Russian gas within 18 months, after previously giving a timeframe of at least two years.

Rules – In public buildings, energy use will be measured in individual rooms of each building – the temperature must not exceed 19C in winter and cannot be any lower than 27C in summer, with a margin of tolerance of two degrees – meaning the lowest allowed temperature is actually 25C.

Fines for non-compliance with the rules are said to range from €500 to €3,000. The measure does not currently apply to clinics, hospitals and nursing homes.

Italy has long had rules in place limiting the usage of heating in homes and public buildings during winter. Northern and mountainous areas are allowed to switch on the heat in October, while some parts of the south can’t turn up the dial until December.

Even then, there are limits on how long you’re allowed to keep the central heating on each day, ranging from six hours in the warmest parts of the country to 14 hours in chillier regions.

And there are rules on maximum temperatures – private homes, offices and schools should not be heated to more than 20C, with a 2C tolerance. Meanwhile factories and workshops should generally be kept at 18C.


The Austrian government has said it will work on measures to encourage energy saving among households and businesses while putting a cap on electricity prices.

The aim is to “support the Austrian population to ensure unaffordable energy supply for a certain basic need”, according to a government statement. 

The government didn’t give details on the price cap but said that conditions would be developed by the end of August.


Sweden has announced no new measures in response to the energy crisis, but already has certain limits in place. 

Many Swedish apartment buildings and housing cooperatives have a strict maximum heating limit of 21C indoors and in some buildings radiators have a limiter on them so they cannot be turned too high.

In Denmark, too, the government has introduced no specific new measures.


In common with other countries, Switzerland is at risk of a gas shortage this winter and the government has warned that restrictions on consumption during the coldest months cannot be excluded.

Nearly half of its annual supply is of Russian origin. “We are not an island, so the war in Ukraine and the global energy crisis also affect Switzerland,” Energy Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said at the end of June. “In this context, there is no certainty about what awaits us.”

The possibility that Swiss households will have to turn down the thermostat this winter is very real. 

In the event of an actual shortage, “consumption restrictions may be ordered, for example restrictions on the heating of unoccupied buildings. The switching to biofuel could be imposed by ordinance”, Economy Minister Guy Parmelin has said.

If shortages persist, a quota system would be implemented – with households and essential services, such as hospitals, among the last to be affected.

But Parmelin insisted, “the role of the State is to guarantee a good supply of gas and electricity to the country. We want at all costs to avoid a disruption in supply, which would have a strong impact on businesses and  would then lead to an economic crisis”.


Less reliant on Russian gas because of its own gas reserves, the UK is currently less worried about supply than price – soaring utility bills may force many households into poverty this winter, campaigners have warned.

Households in the UK will start receiving a discount worth a total £400 (€478) off their energy bills from October, the British government has said, with the support package rises to £1,200 (€1,430) for the poorest households.

A recent report by National Grid said there was little chance of the lights going out in the UK this winter – though experts have warned that a severe cold spell could prompt action, such as shutdowns of non-critical factory operations, to ensure homes can be heated.