Direct democracy Switzerland: How To
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EU priorities

Brexit and the Swiss connection – a guide

By Thomas Stephens

British Prime Minister David Cameron gathering his thoughts in the Swiss resort of Davos on January 24 (Keystone)

British Prime Minister David Cameron gathering his thoughts in the Swiss resort of Davos on January 24


As London negotiates its relationship with Brussels, politicians in the Swiss capital Bern are hoping for a similar EU readiness to compromise. Time, however, is running out. explains a tortuous tale of three cities. 

On February 19, at a summit of EU leaders in Brussels, a deal was struck granting Britain an explicit exemption from the founding goal of “ever closer union”, offering concessions on the welfare rights of migrant workers and safeguards for the City of London.

British voters will now decide on June 23 on “Brexit”: staying in or leaving the European Union. Switzerland has been following the talks closely. 

Switzerland isn’t a member of the European Union. Why does it care about Brexit? 

The short answer is that the Swiss cabinet is under time pressure to reach an agreement with Brussels on curbing immigration, and Brussels has said it won’t turn to Bern before sorting out London. 

The long answer? 

It all goes back to February 9, 2014, when 50.3% of Swiss voters approved an initiative by the rightwing Swiss People’s Party to impose limits on the number of workers allowed into Switzerland from EU and EFTA countries. Parliament then had three years to implement this – in other words by February 9, 2017.

The problem, as Brussels was quick to point out, was that curbing immigration would violate the free movement of people, one of the EU’s central tenets which Switzerland signed up to in 2002 as part of a package of bilateral accords. 

The Swiss cabinet thus found itself in the seemingly impossible position of implementing an initiative that demanded limits on free movement while not jeopardising bilateral accords with the EU. 

What was the cabinet’s solution? 

It’s still working on it. One possible way-out being discussed (at least in Switzerland) was a safeguard clause, agreed with Brussels, in which a limit on EU workers would kick in the following year if immigration reached a certain threshold. 

Swiss spirits were raised on February 2 by one of the draft concessions offered by Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, to British Prime Minister David Cameron: an “emergency brake”. Britain would in effect have the right to curb in-work benefits for up to four years in the case of an exceptional inflow of workers from elsewhere in the EU. 

Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter said the British deal meant a safeguard clause as part of free movement was “no longer impossible”. “It is partly good news, because it shows that the EU is ready to seek pragmatic solutions for the issue of free movement of people and for an emergency brake [on immigration],” he told Swiss public radio SRF. But he admitted that a mutually acceptable solution before the end of February, as hoped, was unlikely. 

In that case, he said Switzerland would go it alone and implement a safeguard clause unilaterally, echoing the cabinet’s announcement on December 4. No one, apart from the People’s Party, is keen on this option. Not least because it violates free movement and the situation is unclear regarding almost 300,000 cross-border workers (not an issue for Britain). Swiss companies would suddenly have staffing problems and many EU workers living near the Swiss border would lose their jobs (in Switzerland). Brussels would definitely not be amused and would probably think up some unpleasant countermeasures

So a safeguard clause is the most likely option?

Well it was until February 21, when newspapers reported that political support for it had dwindled and it was basically off the table. Back to square one.

Nevertheless, Burkhalter was still insisting on February 20 that the cabinet considered some sort of EU-agreed safeguard clause to be the best – and “maybe the only” – option for finding common ground.

What’s the rush for Switzerland? 

A pressing problem for the Swiss cabinet is that it must present to parliament its bill on implementing the mass immigration initiative by the beginning of March – some reports are saying March 4.

As mentioned, cabinet would like to have reached an agreement with Brussels when it does so, but this is looking increasingly unlikely because of Brussel’s insistence on dealing with its British headache (avoiding Brexit) before its Swiss headache (immigration limits). 

Brussels is concerned that reaching a deal with non-member Switzerland – especially if it involves some sort of safeguard clause – could give some member states ideas and could influence British voters to leave the EU in the hope of negotiating a “Swiss deal”. As it is, some people in Britain look wistfully at Switzerland’s free-trade agreement with China; as an EU member Britain can’t sign such agreements, but it could if it were outside the EU. 

Economics Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann, who holds the rotating Swiss presidency this year, confirmed on February 4 he had “received indications that Switzerland could rejoin the table [to relaunch talks with Brussels] as soon as the main agreement is concluded between Britain and the EU”. 

When will that be? 

The Brexit referendum will be held on June 23 – under the circumstances not a bad result for Switzerland. It was unlikely to be any earlier.

The EU has agreed to a sort of safeguard clause for Britain. What are the chances of it agreeing a similar one with Switzerland? 

This is the big question. Burkhalter himself admitted there was “no direct link” between the solution proposed in London and the talks conducted by Switzerland following the 2014 immigration vote. 

While London is seeking to curb benefits for immigrants, Switzerland wants to re-introduce quotas for those coming from the 28-nation bloc. “It doesn’t mean a general solution agreed [with Britain] is also a solution for Switzerland,” he said on February 2. 

He also pointed out that the status of the two countries was totally different. “We’re not a member of the EU and we don’t want to become one, while Britain is a member and is debating whether it should remain one.” 

Britain in Europe

March 25, 1957: The Treaty of Rome is signed by (West) Germany, France, Italy and the Benelux countries, creating the European Economic Community (EEC). Britain refuses to join and proposes the foundation of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) with Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Austria and Portugal.

1961: The British government, realising it has backed the wrong horse as economic growth in the EEC rockets, requests the beginning of negotiations on accession to the EEC.

1963 and 1967: French President Charles de Gaulle vetoes British attempts to join the EEC. 

1970: After De Gaulle leaves office, negotiations for British entry begin under pro-European Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath. 

January 1, 1973: Britain enters EEC under Heath, along with Ireland and Denmark. 

October 1974: Labour wins general election under Harold Wilson. A manifesto promise had been a referendum on staying in the EEC. 

June 5, 1975: In a referendum two-thirds of voters decide to stay in the EEC. All national newspapers – and future Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – had supported staying in. 

January 2013: David Cameron announces there will be a referendum on EU membership if the Conservatives win the 2015 general election (which they do). 

June 23, 2016: British vote on staying in or leaving the EU.



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