Switzerland has been in a kind of limbo since May 26th. On that day, the government, the seven-member Federal Council, decided to suspend negotiations with Brussels on a framework agreement. Remember: a negotiation process that lasted more than seven years and which aimed to put the relationship between Bern and Brussels on a new footing. The move was a blast, the indignation on the part of the EU was great, and the reactions in the country itself were appalling.
Since then, Switzerland has been trying to digest that day and everything it brought with it. And looking forward to the fall. In September, Brussels has announced, the European Commission wants to comment on how it intends to shape its future relationship with Switzerland, an important but increasingly difficult partner.
But the key question is: How does Switzerland really envisage its future relationship with the EU, which surrounds it from all sides? It wanted to start a political dialogue with Brussels and continue “the proven bilateral cooperation”, it was announced after the Federal Council’s resignation. The approximately 120 bilateral agreements between Bern and Brussels, which characterize the close relationship and ultimately give the Confederations comprehensive access to the internal market, are also a success story.
But the EU, as has become clear in recent years, is no longer willing to continue on this path. The situation had become too complex, Brussels complained, and they no longer wanted to have to update each contract individually if something changed in EU law.
In Brussels, the understanding of special wishes has disappeared
So an institutional umbrella was planned: Switzerland would almost automatically have to adopt EU law for the five agreements affecting market access. In addition, an arbitral tribunal with equal representation was made available for disputes. At the end of 2018, a draft of such a framework agreement was available. But Switzerland hesitated and wanted to renegotiate some points. Otherwise, it was feared in Bern that a referendum could overthrow the treaty.
In Brussels, the understanding of the special wishes of the Swiss fell increasingly, and when, after months of struggle, no solution was found, the Federal Council finally decided to end the project. But apart from the aforementioned “political dialogue”, it is still quite unclear what should come instead.
Formally, relations with the EU are in the hands of the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Its head, Ignazio Cassis, tried to create good weather shortly after the memorable day in May: in late July, he traveled to Brussels and met EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn, his former EU negotiating partner. He responded in a friendly but reserved way: “Despite differing views on some issues, it is important to maintain the foundation of trust and continue the dialogue,” Hahn tweeted.
Behind the scenes, Ignazio Cassis’s Secretary of State Livia Leu is working on a new attempt with the EU. It was she who had recently unsuccessfully tried to clarify the disputed points with the EU. As she recently told reporters, she is currently paving the way for new talks with Brussels – “so that things are right and also work for us.”
The main difficulty for Secretary of State Leu, however, is that the relationship between Bern and Brussels is not only shaped by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This became clear in early July, when the Swiss Ministry of Defense announced that it would not buy its new fighter jets from European manufacturers Airbus or Dassault, but from the American company Lockheed Martin. France in particular alienated Switzerland, but also the Eurofighter countries Germany, Italy and Spain reacted angrily to the decision.
On top of that, the Swiss federal administration had just announced that it had awarded a major IT contract for cloud services to four U.S. and one Chinese company. Here again, European providers did not get anything, although storing government data in China and the US is considered problematic. Both incidents raised the question of whether Switzerland really still sees the EU as its natural partner – or whether it is increasingly looking for alternatives abroad.
In any case, the Swiss government has recently tried again to send signals of rapprochement. A few days ago, she sent a message to parliament urging MPs to quickly release the so-called cohesion billion to poorer EU countries. It is about the money that is to reduce inequalities within the EU – and which Switzerland has also agreed to pay, so to speak, in return for its participation in the internal market. However, Parliament suspended the payment of these approximately 1.3 billion Swiss francs in the dispute over the framework agreement. Now the money should flow – to give “a new boost” to relations with the EU.
However, it is far from certain whether the Folketing will take part in the plan. In addition to the right-wing Conservative SVP, which rejects any rapprochement with the EU, there are also voices from the FDP and the Mitte party who want to know how things are going with the EU before releasing the cohesion contribution.
One thing is for sure: Brussels has so far shown little concessions and is irritating Switzerland on more and more fronts. It still does not recognize the equivalence of the Swiss stock exchange regulation, a criminal case from 2019. Since the negotiations broke down, the EU has not – as threatened – updated the agreement on technical barriers to trade. Since then, the Swiss medical technology industry has only been able to export to the EU under third country conditions.
The exclusion of Switzerland from the giant research program “Horizon Europe” is even more dramatic: it has been clear since July that Brussels classifies the research-intensive country as an unassociated third country. Only in the recognition of the Swiss Corona certificate has the EU recently shown itself to be cooperative. Limbo condition: It is becoming more and more uncomfortable for the Swiss.