European Union finance ministers have approved a mandate for negotiations with Switzerland on institutional issues, including legal amendments and a court of arbitration – a cornerstone for future bilateral relations.
Tuesday’s decision, which was widely expected, comes a week after the Swiss government agreed to admit a limited number of Croatian nationals to the Swiss labour market and also formally unblocks frozen negotiations on research and education cooperation.
No date for the start of talks has been set.
David O'Sullivan, the EU top diplomat, told journalists in Brussels that the EU had no interest in delaying discussions on a framework agreement with Switzerland.
However, he said Brussels would not sign any accord unless Switzerland resolves a stalement over the free movement of people accord.
The Swiss government has already agreed the mandate and hopes to negotiate a new package of bilateral accords within the next few years.
Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter said Swiss voters could have the final say on the deal, including controversial immigration curbs, after the next general elections in 2016.
However, the strongman of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party, Christoph Blocher, has warned the government of trying to undermine Swiss sovereignty by agreeing a wide-ranging framework agreement with Brussels.
Switzerland and the EU have agreed more than 120 separate bilateral accords over the past 45 years.
Relations were temporarily stalled following Swiss voters’ approval in February of a rightwing proposal to limit immigration from EU countries and re-introduce annual quota. However, Brussels says the free movement of people principle is a key policy tenet and is not negotiable.
swissinfo.ch and agencies