Does Switzerland try to friendzone the EU?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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. [Sutterstock]

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.

Stefan Legge is an economics lecturer at the University of St. Gallen.

After seven years of negotiations, the Swiss Federal Council has buried the framework agreement with the European Union. It is a much-discussed topic, but one central point has so far remained unspoken: The EU and Switzerland, they envision a completely different basis of the relationship. This is the core of many misunderstandings, the core of the current rejection, and also the core of future discussions.

To understand this point more clearly, consider an example. Let us assume a person by the name of Peter has been a customer of the Leyen car dealership for some twenty years. He buys a new car there every few years and then also regularly takes it in for service. He knows the owner of the dealership, even her husband, who is also occasionally on site. Peter is very satisfied with the dealership and vice versa, he is also a valued customer.

But after 20 years, Peter decides to buy his next new car from a different brand at a different dealership. For him, this is not a problem. The relationship with Mrs. Leyen was always transactional, that is, focused purely on economic cooperation, business transactions. They did speak of a friendship, talked about private topics from time to time, and the dealership sent a bottle of wine every year at Christmas. But from Peter’s point of view, the relationship was purely transactional. Yet, how will Mrs. Leyen react when she learns that Peter has now bought his new car elsewhere?

This problem arises between many people when one side assumes a transactional relationship, but the other side envisions an emotional relationship. And it only gets worse when the former person takes advantage of the situation.

For instance, if in our example Peter played along with the illusion of a friendship for years to get better terms. He may have obtained such terms even without giving too much thought to the relationship. In any case, the relationship can quickly tip over entirely if it was previously seen by Mrs. Leyen as being on an emotional, friendship-like basis.

In contrast, a relationship that is clearly transactional for both sides can be suspended or ended completely at any time without causing major disappointment or even anger. Emotional relationships are a different matter altogether.

Applied to the framework agreement between Switzerland and the EU, it must be noted that Switzerland has been striving for a transactional relationship with the European Union for decades. The Swiss like the French or Germans just as much as Peter likes the Leyen car dealership. One appreciates the cooperation and is constantly switching between being supplier and customer. Sometimes Switzerland offers its goods and services, sometimes it buys them from the EU – but the relationship has always been transactional from the Swiss point of view.

Representatives of Brussels, however, look at the matter quite differently. The European single market, the European project, the process of European unification – there are larger ideas and more emotional views at work. With regards to Switzerland, too, only the proverbial Brussels technocrats are able to adopt a sober, cool, transactional attitude. Many, on the other hand, see a gaping hole at the center of the EU that ought to be closed.

Representatives of the European Union often have deeply rooted historical developments in mind. For centuries, the people of Europe suffered from the lack of European unification. Countless wars regularly left devastation and suffering in their wake. These recurring catastrophes finally had to be dealt with once and for all after the worst of all wars, the Second World War. Over decades and through a painful process, the EU was born. And even crises of the recent past, such as the Euro crisis, are seen as resulting from a lack of European cooperation and integration: for the common currency to work, a fiscal union is needed.

Switzerland, on the other hand, has essentially been a mere bystander in all the wars, catastrophes, and crises. As a result, it has a completely different relationship with historical events. An interpretation of history that is widespread in Europe can therefore only be shared to a limited extent. Instead, Swiss people usually take a more sober and unemotional view of history. This makes the bilateral dealings and communication with the EU more difficult.

If Switzerland wants to continue to cultivate its relationship with the EU – and anything else would hardly be in the country’s interest – it is now crucial to clarify its fundamental position. It must be clear to both sides what kind of relationship they are essentially striving for.

Whether Switzerland will succeed in achieving a purely transactional relationship, however, is an open question. After the Brexit decision, the British also had to learn that the EU was not happy to make the switch from an emotional, friendship-like relationship to a sober, economic, and purely transactional one. A free trade agreement was signed, but the relationship is considered frosty and will remain so for years to come.

In the example above, Peter might go back to Mrs. Leyen for his next car without any problems. The Swiss Federal Council will have a more difficult time reaching a deal with the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.

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.

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