Knowledge: A Swiss Army knife for Brexit?

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Switzerland's 2014 referendum was purely on migration policy. It was also a significant factor in the Brexit vote. [Kecko/ Flickr]

The Swiss and British referendums of 2014 and 2016, respectively, share some parallels. The way the Alpine republic resolved its dispute about free movement offers a number of lessons as the date for making Brexit official looms ever nearer, writes Giorgio Clarotti.

Giorgio Clarotti is a member of the Union of European Federalists (UEF) Europe Group.

The upset was massive. The result of the referendum divided the country along the lines of cities, which typically voted ‘Yes’, and the periphery, which was in favour of ‘No’.

While most polls and experts predicted ‘Yes’ would win out, a tiny majority voted to exclude EU immigrants from moving in. All major world newspapers predicted the economy would be much affected by skills shortage.

Sounds familiar? Yes, the year was 2014, the majority only 50.3% and targeted immigrants were mostly German and French. The country was Switzerland.

Faced with an upsurge of immigrants in 2012 and 2013 recognised by the OECD as the world’s fastest rate, the country passed the 8 million population bar, pressurising its infrastructure and health services. “Trop c’est trop” uttered the populist leader of the Swiss People’s Party, Christophe Blocher.

However, what set it apart from the Brexit vote was the European Union’s reaction. The referendum targeted a federal law which was going to allow the free movement of Croatians, who had just joined the EU, across Swiss borders.

When the Swiss reneged, it took only a fortnight for the EU to stop negotiations with Switzerland on its education and research programmes.

There was panic in Swiss universities. Almost 100,000 locals benefit every year from the Erasmus programme. Offering salaries double than their neighbour, Switzerland imported many of the EU’s top researchers, attracting a high share of top level grantees of the European Research Council (the ERC), which come with their high EU grants attached.

The Commission move touched the confederation at the heart of its strategy based on knowledge and education, “the coal and steel of the 21st century” according to State Secretary for Education, Research and Innovation Mauro Dell’Ambrogio.

True, Switzerland passed laws ensuring all local researchers involved in EU programmes would receive funding equivalent to the loss of EU grants, but Swiss clout was affected: grantees dwindled, coordination of EU projects by Swiss companies and universities fell from 4% to… basically nothing (0.3%).

Despite having negotiated ‘partial’ deals for the ERC and Erasmus students, more than a billion euros of potential EU funding was lost in 2014 and 2015 when comparing Horizon 2020, the EU Research and Innovation programme spanning 2014 to 2020, to its predecessor.

Partial deals were not sufficient. Researchers and business, heavily biased towards high-tech sectors, threatened to leave the country. The mobility and networking offered by the EU knowledge market was appealing and Switzerland risked losing its most precious asset: local and imported quality brains.

2016 saw the negotiation toughen, with both the EU and the Swiss People’s Party urging Switzerland to clarify its position. According to Swiss law, referendum results have to be implemented within three years. The clock was ticking and the EU negotiator stated it would be either “full access” – (in all its meanings) – “or lock-out”.

In December, the Swiss Federal Parliament renounced the idea of quotas. Despite a priority given to local workers and safeguard measures, in case of upsurges, the People’s Party enraged, promising a new referendum, but the rest of the Assembly faced the nationalists, overturning the results of the 2014 vote.

Again, the EU reacted swiftly, fully opening up Horizon 2020 as of 1 January 2017. All was forgiven after the Swiss dared confront their populists in the name of the free movement of knowledge.

Due to the concurrent terrorist attacks in Berlin and Istanbul, the Swiss move went unnoticed. With my colleague Maryline Maillard, Counsellor for Science in the Swiss Mission to the Union, we met for breakfast near Place du Luxembourg in Brussels, as I used to do with her predecessor, before the Swexit vote.

That morning I promised to write this little known story that starts nasty, but ends well. That’s now done. Tomorrow, I think I’ll invite her British colleague for breakfast, at the same café…