EU-Switzerland: Marriage of convenience on the rocks

8 March 2011 – Presseurop Notebook

Concerning relations with the EU, the Swiss government "does not know what it wants," writes Geneva daily Le Temps, quoting parliamentarian Maximilian Reimann. EU membership is rejected by a majority of Swiss citizens, who feel their opinion borne out by the eurozone crisis. A new referendum akin to the “Norwegian” scenario of joining the European Economic Area (EEA) raises the spectre of another No vote like the referendum of 6 December, 1992. Still, it is unthinkable for the Alpine nation to break with its number one economic partner, which receives almost 60% of "Swiss made" products. Exporters are also pressing for solutions to the thorny issues of the strong franc against the euro, which undermines overheads and reduces competitiveness.

The seven sages of the Federal Council are therefore sailing in troubled waters, forced to find a consensus acceptable to the "Neinsager" (EU Naysayer) while maintaining good relations with Brussels. As reported in Le Figaro, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso termed the current network of bilateral agreements between the EU and Switzerland "complex and cumbersome" after a meeting with the Confederation President Micheline Calmy-Rey on 8 February. Coming to end of their validity, these agreements, thrashed out in the emergency arising from the 1992 referendum, are on the way to being institutionalised.

Brussels is keen on the idea of negotiating a new "Bilateral III" [after the 1999 and 2004 agreements] with Switzerland. The problem is that between Berne and Brussels fundamental differences on the institutional question linger. "Before negotiating new openings to the European market for Switzerland, the EU insists on the latter applying evolutions to EU law," writes Le Temps. "On the Swiss side, we refuse to consider any resumption that would lead to an unacceptable surrender of sovereignty."

Although overshadowed by the uprisings in North Africa, it is nevertheless European policy that will be "the first concern of the Federal Council and diplomats in March," says Le Temps. The government in particular will decide what to include in the Bilateral III negotiating package. It will not be easy: "The farming community, for example, opposes free trade in agricultural products for which economiesuisse [The Swiss Business Federation] has an interest. The employers' association does not wish to open the tax dossier but would be willing to open talks on the Reach agreement for chemical products and the electricity issue."

This game of cat and mouse between Berne and Brussels may well run on and the diplomatic back and forth between the two capitals multiplied. "I’m leaving Brussels with an almost impossible mission," said Micheline Calmy-Rey after her meeting with Mr Barroso in February. But such differences are nothing new: instability characterises this de facto marriage of convenience between a large and rapidly changing collective and a small nation, jealous of its prerogatives. Perhaps it is wrong to settle affairs between Switzerland and the EU "once and for all" . One step towards better relations might first be to abandon this illusion.

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