The European Union has already announced it will only sign new bilateral agreements with Switzerland under strict conditions, but cabinet has yet to decide how far it is prepared to bend and how far it wants to defend national sovereignty.
The biggest stumbling block has been EU demands that Switzerland adapt its laws to reflect any changes made to Union legislation.
The government is ready to accept this, however not automatically. This would mean that any modification of Swiss legislation to make it conform with EU law might have to be approved by a nationwide vote.
So far, the cabinet has proposed the creation of a Swiss committee for the surveillance of the bilateral accords with the EU to help solve some of these institutional problems. Brussels would prefer a supranational body for this job.
To date, the EU has not given its position on the Swiss proposal, mainly because Bern has not officially put it on the table. Cabinet is still waiting to hear from the cantons, associations and parliamentary foreign policy committees before pushing ahead.
However, the EU’s representative in Switzerland has already suggested that it is “insufficient”.
Political scientist Laurent Goetschel reckons the government’s proposal is serious though.
“It is a way of positioning oneself before talks kick off,” he told swissinfo.ch. “But the proposal was made in full knowledge that it wasn’t likely to be loved by the other negotiating party.”
In 1992, the rightwing Swiss People’s Party was the only mainstream party to oppose Switzerland joining the European Economic Area (EEA). A nationwide vote rejecting the government’s proposal made it into the leader of anti-EU sentiment, which is still today one of the core values of its policies.
People’s Party parliamentarian Hans Fehr unsurprisingly rejects the latest cabinet suggestion, saying it fails to defend Switzerland’s interests and makes the country stoop to Brussels.
“The government wants to give in and somehow make the EU happy,” he said. “It has to clearly state that we are a sovereign nation.”
Cabinet is in a difficult position according to Michael Fust, general secretary of the Swiss New European Movement.
“Every step of the way, the government is criticised either for going too far or not far enough,” he told swissinfo.ch. “It has now found a minimum it can agree upon, but it is unlikely to satisfy the EU.”
Off the radar
Domestically, cabinet must find a majority in parliament to back any agreement with the union, as well as garner a ‘yes’ vote from citizens.
However, the EU has largely vanished from public debate in recent months.
“Last year was an election year, so everyone avoided discussing EU relations as it was obvious Switzerland would have to make major concessions if it wanted better access to the wider European market,” said Fust.
“Any move in that direction doesn’t appear especially attractive because it would tie us more closely to the EU while giving us no say in decisions made in Brussels. It would be a major challenge to explain that to voters. I think some politicians would prefer to avoid the issue altogether rather than get their fingers burnt,” he added.
The government has also a good reason to avoid challenging its current European policy according to Goetschel. “The really important domains and issues have already been dealt with to a large extent by existing accords,” he said.
Give and take
Switzerland already has around 100 bilateral agreements with the EU covering everything from the free movement of people, policing the continent’s borders to transport, trade and research.
This all means that finding a long-term solution for Swiss-EU relations could still be some way off.
“We have been doing that since the EEA was turned down in 1992,” Goetschel pointed out. “I reckon it will stay that way unless major problems with the current accords appear or some economic catastrophe forces us to change our approach.”
Bilateral relations involve give and take says Fehr, pointing out that Switzerland has for example spent SFr30 billion on new Alpine railway crossings that also benefit the EU. “I don’t see any reason for Switzerland to sign a new accord now or in the medium term,” he told swissinfo.ch.
“There’s no need for it.”