Worlds apart: Switzerland and EU keep talking past each other

Ignazio Cassis and Maroš Šefčovič

Swiss foreign minister Ignazio Cassis, on the left, and vice-president of the Commission Maroš Šefčovič on 15 November in Brussels. [Lukasz Kobus (European Commission Audiovisual Service)]

The Swiss foreign minister came to Brussels on Monday (15 November) to launch a political dialogue with the EU, six months after the Swiss government decided to stop negotiations on a framework agreement between the two sides. However, no genuine rapprochement is envisaged anytime soon, analysts say.

On Monday (15 November), Swiss foreign minister Ignazio Cassis met Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič in an effort to stabilise relations between the EU and Switzerland.

The EU is Switzerland’s most important trading partner, while Switzerland is the EU’s fourth largest trading partner.

Politically, however, things are going less smoothly.

How we got here

More than 100 bilateral agreements organise the cooperation between the EU and Switzerland. For the past years, the EU Commission had been pushing towards an institutional framework agreement that would govern the most important of these agreements and ensure that Switzerland does not undermine the unity of the EU single market.

But in May 2021, after seven years of negotiations, the Swiss government pulled the plug on the agreement due to concerns about migration, labour rights, and worries about the authority the agreement would give to the European Court of Justice.

Swiss scrap talks with EU on cooperation deal

Switzerland on Wednesday (26 May) called off years of talks with the European Union aimed at sealing a cooperation agreement with Bern’s largest trading partner, in a move which angered Brussels.

Already before, the EU Commission had begun tightening the screw, saying that current bilateral agreements could only be updated and new market access agreements concluded if a framework agreement was adopted.

Since May, however, the Commission has toughened its stance, denying Switzerland access to the EU’s €95.5 billion Horizon Europe research program and other cooperation schemes that have no direct link to the EU single market.

It is against this background and with a wish to restart a political dialogue that Cassis came to Brussels to discuss Swiss-EU relations with Šefčovič.

Mutual misunderstanding

“We have a different reading of what happened,” the Swiss foreign minister told a press conference after Monday’s discussion.

Indeed, Switzerland and the EU seem to have trouble understanding each other. While to Šefčovič the end of the negotiations was a “sudden rupture”, the framework agreement seemed hopeless in the eyes of the Swiss public for quite some time already.

“In Switzerland, there is a misunderstanding on what the EU has become, also among politicians. Many of them have an outdated understanding of how the EU works,” Darius Farman, co-director of foraus, a Swiss foreign policy think tank, told EURACTIV.

The most important bilateral agreements have been negotiated in the 1990s. “In the meantime, the EU has undergone profound changes,” Farman said.

One of these changes is that the EU takes a more political approach to its relations with close neighbours. For example, the EU concluded an association agreement for Horizon Europe with Turkey, but withholds this status from Switzerland that hosts some of Europe’s best universities.

“We will take into account the development of the EU-Swiss relationship as a whole. In the absence of real engagement from Switzerland, it will be difficult to advance on this front,” Šefčovič said, referring to the Swiss participation in Horizon Europe.

Cassis warned that this was counterproductive and incomprehensible from a Swiss perspective and that it would lead to a weakening of European research.

Bad dancers

“EU-Swiss relations deserve better than a lack of prospects,” vice-president Šefčovič told a press conference after the meeting. Nevertheless, he remained firm on the Commission’s previous position.

“It takes two to tango,” Šefčovič said. And for Switzerland to dance in step with the EU, the Commission expects Switzerland to follow its lead.

“What we now need from Switzerland is the unambiguous political will to engage with us, on the real issues that count, and a credible timetable,” Šefčovič stated, which to Swiss ears might sound more like a marching order than an invitation to dance.

Cassis also said it took two to tango, but interpreted the phrase rather differently, saying it was about both parties bringing their wishes to paper and then finding common ground.

EU urges Swiss 'compromise' to break deal impasse

European Union chief Ursula von der Leyen called for “flexibility” as talks with Switzerland’s president on Friday (23 April) failed to make a breakthrough towards sealing a long-delayed cooperation agreement.

What the EU wants…

The Commission is clear about what it wants. “Anyone operating on the EU’s Single Market must abide by the same rules and obligations,” Šefčovič stated at Monday’s press conference, reiterating the issues the Commission wants to see solved:

  • The dynamic alignment of Swiss law to EU law
  • A level playing field between Switzerland and the EU
  • A functioning dispute settlement mechanism
  • A regular financial contribution by Switzerland to the EU’s cohesion policy

To Šefčovič, it is essential “that Switzerland this time would mean it,” hinting at a lack of trust between the partners that foreign minister Cassis did not deny. “There is a trust problem,” the Swiss foreign minister confirmed.

…but Switzerland cannot deliver.

Nevertheless, it will be hard for the Swiss government to give the “clear sign” the EU Commission is asking for. For the Swiss government, it is inherently difficult to find a unified position on its EU policy.

“The Swiss policy towards the EU is almost entirely determined by domestic considerations,” Farman told EURACTIV.

“Three out of the four political parties represented in government are deeply divided on this issue. The remaining one is strongly opposed to closer cooperation with the EU,” he explained, referring to the far-right Swiss People’s party, Switzerland’s biggest party.

This is also why the current impasse might not be resolved anytime soon. According to Farman, the main parties would avoid talking about the Swiss EU policy so as not to undermine party cohesion ahead of elections due to take place in the fall of 2023.

“New significant proposals from the Swiss side on institutional solutions are unlikely to be made before the 2023 federal elections,” Farman concluded.

If he is right, the next possible push from the Swiss side can only be expected in 2024.

“2024 is too late for the European Commission,” Šefčovič said. Instead, he hopes for a clear roadmap on how to tackle the outstanding issues by January 2022 and substantial progress until the end of the next year.

All the differences notwithstanding, Cassis and Šefčovič agreed to establish a “structured, political dialogue on a ministerial level”. The next meeting will take place in January 2022 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Does Switzerland try to friendzone the EU?

The Swiss Federal Council decided to withdraw from the framework agreement with the European Union. It is now imperative to clarify that both sides pursue a completely different kind of relationship, writes Stefan Legge.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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