Switzerland ponders scenarios for future EU relations

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Recent talks between Swiss President Doris Leuthard and European Union leaders have triggered a media debate over Switzerland's relations with the 27-member bloc, the Swiss press writes.

Newspaper editorialists pointed to possible future scenarios following Monday's joint decision in Brussels to try and simplify bilateral relations between the EU and non-member Switzerland, writes SwissInfo.

On 19 July, EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy met the president of the Swiss Confederation, Doris Leuthard, and reportedly urged the development of relations with Switzerland on sound legal and political foundations.

"I know that an important political debate in this regard is taking place in Switzerland, as well as in the EU. I expressed the EU's readiness to explore jointly possible solutions to address these questions," Van Rompuy is quoted as saying in an official communiqué.

Swiss editorialists are now highlighting what they describe as "clear signals" that the EU is not willing to extend for long its current policy with Switzerland, meaning that of numerous bilateral treaties.

Concrete proposals from the cabinet on solving the impasse are to be expected as it would be inappropriate to shelve the issue until after upcoming general elections, Neue Zürcher Zeitung writes, alluding to the national poll due in autumn 2011.

The discussions come 20 years after voters rejected Swiss accession to the European Economic Area (EEA). Instead of joining the association, which allows non-EU members Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway to participate in the EU common market, Switzerland instead drew up a complicated series of bilateral agreements with the EU (see 'Background').

Apart from the PS, the Swiss Socialist Party, which favours the country's EU accession, most political players prefer not to broach the issue as bilateral treaties seem to be the only policy option acceptable to the public.

A recent poll showed that just a quarter of the Swiss support EU accession, while two thirds are opposed to it.

Who dares to raise membership issue?

"Nobody. There is an uneasy silence over this crucial policy matter," writes the Fribourg-based Libert newspaper. Geneva daily Le Temps asks whether Switzerland has any other choice but to focus on joining an amended version of the EEA.

The next stage could be a 'Swissified' form of the EEA and its mechanisms on the basis of subtle exceptions, it said.

According to the same recent opinion poll, the French-speaking Swiss are the only ones who favour of EEA accession – by a majority of 63%, which is lower than in the 1992 referendum (see 'Background'). Overall, EEA accession is supported by 44% of the Swiss, while 42% oppose it.

The populist Swiss People's Party (UDC) of Christoph Blocher is the only political party to rejoice over the new electoral issue. Blocher said his party would vigorously fight against joining the EEA, which he described as a colonial agreement, Romandie.com writes.

Switzerland is surrounded by the European Union (EU). According to the European Commission website, over 900,000 EU citizens live and work in Switzerland, and many more cross its borders or travel through the country on a regular basis.

The accession of Switzerland to the Economic Free Trade Association (EFTA) in 1960 and the signing of the Free Trade Agreement of 1972 between the European Economic Community (EEC) and Switzerland from the basis of its EU relations.

In 1989, an agreement on insurance was reached, while in 1992 in the wake of the referendum on joining the EEA, Switzerland filed an application for EU membership.

Following the rejection of EEA accession in the 1992 referendum, negotiations between the two sides continued. The referendum was a major defeat for the government and marked the rise of a right-wing party headed by Christoph Blocher.

In addition to the Free Trade Agreement of 1972, the agreement on insurance (1989), bilateral agreements (1999) and Bilateral II (2004), more than 100 technical agreements govern relations between Switzerland and the EU.

Last year, Switzerland was on the brink of a major crisis in its relations with the EU due to a referendum on opening up the country's labour market to Bulgarian and Romanian workers.

In the event of a 'no' vote, a 'guillotine' clause would have suspended a number of related trade agreements between the Alpine country and the EU, which had been negotiated in 1999.

But as most mainstream political parties and the economic establishment pushed for a 'yes', the referendum was successful with 59.6% of the vote (EURACTIV 09/02/09).

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