The Swiss government has pledged to renew a financial package with the European Union to the tune of CHF1.3 billion ($1.3 billion), but talks on a framework accord will not be concluded before the end of the year.
The promise of the payment to the 28-nation bloc was made during a visit by European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, to the Swiss capital Bern on Thursday.
The funds are to be split into two separate slices. Some CHF1.1 billion are aimed at vocational training programmes and efforts to combat youth unemployment in EU member states in central and eastern Europe over the next ten years. The remaining CHF200 million are destined for migration aid in the whole of the EU.
A previous Swiss financial package to improve living standards in the EU will run out shortly.
However, the two sides also indicated that differences – notably over a dispute settlement mechanism and export subsidies – had not made sufficient progress over the past few months and more time was needed to reach agreement.
“We had hoped to come to an agreement before the end of the year,” said Swiss President Doris Leuthard. “But there is a strong political will.”
Juncker added that things were moving in the right direction for a “friendship treaty” with Switzerland and an agreement could be on the table by next spring if the last stretch of negotiations was tackled with the necessary flexibility.
Juncker also pointed out that Brussels welcomed the application of controversial immigration curbs without violating a fundamental EU policy tenet – the free movement of people.
Approval of the anti-immigration initiative by Swiss voters in February 2014 had strained relations between the two sides and blocked negotiations on further bilateral agreements for more than three years.
Leuthard told the news conference that her government had taken note of the progress made in several areas this year, notably on financial and technical trade issues as well as a fingerprint database of asylum seekers.
During Thursday’s visit Switzerland and the EU also signed an accord on trading CO2 emissions.
“We put the differences of the past behind us and we looked ahead to a future with solutions acceptable for both sides and under clear conditions,” concluded Leuthard.
Juncker reiterated that the EU was interested in good relations with Switzerland and that the non-EU member was an integral part of Europe.
He ended on an optimistic note: “Things are not only moving, but they are moving in the right direction.”
The Swiss media had played up Juncker’s visit to Bern as a breakthrough in bilateral relations as the government’s EU policy remains high on the agenda of the political right.
In a first reaction, the conservative Campaign for an Independent and Neutral Switzerland group criticised that the government had not been able or willing to oppose conditions set by Brussels.
The rightwing Swiss People’s Party accused the government of giving away taxpayers’ money to the EU and betraying the interests of the country.
It vowed to fight against any attempt to “turn our nation into a colony of a bureaucratic and anti-democratic Brussels”.
The party also said it would launch a people’s initiative aimed at scrapping an accord with the EU on the free movement of people – one of more than 120 bilateral agreements between Brussels and non-EU member Switzerland.