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‘I can’t see Switzerland or the EU leaving the negotiating table’

Relations between Switzerland and the European Union (EU) are well past the honeymoon period, although the Swiss people voted resoundingly against ending free movement last Sunday. It will take time before Bern and Brussels sign an institutional framework agreement, cautions Cenni Najy, a researcher and expert on European affairs at the University of Geneva.

The president of the Swiss Confederation, Simonetta Sommaruga, and the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, spoke on the telephone last Monday, one day after the Swiss people rejected the immigration restrictions initiative. The EU chief urged the Swiss government to make swift progress in concluding an institutional framework agreement, intended to regulate long-term relations between the 27-country bloc and Switzerland. Although the will to do so is there, the path ahead is fraught with obstacles, warns Najy who is also vice-president of the foreign policy think tank foraus.

Can the rejection of the immigration initiative by 62% of voters be interpreted as a clear sign that Swiss citizens support the bilateral track?

It is a clear sign that people do not want another crisis on top of the coronavirus. With the pandemic, the Swiss have become aware of the need to work with our neighbours, that is, with the EU. This definitely helped swell the number of votes against the Swiss People’s Party initiative. The population overwhelmingly endorsed the bilateral track, in a pragmatic and cooperative approach.

Does this clear result put the government in a strong position in pursuing negotiations with Brussels?

The governing Federal Council is strengthened by this victory, which was not a foregone conclusion. However, this does not mean that the structural problems linked to the bilateral track can be resolved with the wave of a magic wand. We now have a final version of the institutional framework agreement, which has been under negotiation for years, but Switzerland is reluctant to sign it, deeming that several points still need to be clarified; and these are not mere details, but important, even major, issues. One might well question whether renegotiation would not be more appropriate than simple clarification.  

Attacked from all quarters in Switzerland, does the institutional framework agreement still have a future?

On both the EU and Swiss sides, there is still a certain will to find solutions and conclude this long negotiation process. However, the Swiss government has its work cut out for it in overcoming the many divisions that have emerged in recent months, if not to say years, across the political spectrum. It will have to explain what has been negotiated and whether the fears expressed are justified or not, all the while trying to find common ground on outstanding issues with the EU.

Is a complete renegotiation of the agreement unrealistic?

As far as I can see there will be no full-fledged renegotiation of the agreement, but rather adjustments to the present version. Switzerland and the EU have been talking about this for nearly ten years. The EU will not accept a complete overhaul of the negotiation process just because Switzerland has internal problems. This would take so long that Brussels would probably rather have no agreement at all than this scenario.

The People’s Party has already announced that it will wage its next battle against the institutional framework agreement, as it threatens the country’s sovereignty. Is this fear founded?

In actual fact, the agreement will hardly change anything compared with the situation today. Switzerland generally voluntarily adopts any developments in European law relevant to the bilateral agreements. There are, however, a few exceptions, where it has not aligned itself, in particular with regard to the European citizenship directive. Adopting this would give more rights to EU residents coming to work in Switzerland. In concrete terms, it would make it a little more difficult for the Swiss authorities to deport criminals coming from the EU. However, the number of cases per year could be counted on the fingers of one hand. These are emotional issues, matters of principle, but which, to my mind, would have little real impact on the country’s sovereignty.

The accompanying measures, meant to address the problem of wage dumping in particular, are the focal point of criticism from the left. Can a solution be found?

This is the most problematic point in my view. Over the past 20 years, Switzerland has implemented a number of measures that accompany free movement. According to most experts, they provide real protection against wage dumping. These legal provisions work well, but they are not fully EU-compatible. If they were to fall by the wayside, the left would cut its strong support for the bilateral track and the free movement of people. And, without the left, the government would no longer have the political support needed to pursue the bilateral track.
We could introduce new accompanying measures in line with EU law, but for that the social partners like the unions would have to sit around the table. And so far, there has not been the will to do so.

If Switzerland is unable to find a solution, might it decide to drop the whole exercise?

I can’t see Switzerland or the EU leaving the negotiating table. The government does not want to bear responsibility for the failure of the talks. We are now in a waiting game. The institutional agreement contains major principles to which the EU is very attached. It would be unrealistic to hope that we could scrap everything and start over again and that these principles would vanish.

If there is no will to move forward on both sides, the agreement will remain as it is for several months, even years, until the situation in Switzerland changes or the EU is more willing to make concessions. It makes more sense to wait for the various issues to be ironed out than to start again from scratch. In any event, I do not think a framework agreement will be signed before the end of the year.

Translated from French by Julia Bassam