Plans by the United States and the European Union for a free trade agreement have prompted concern among Swiss politicians. They fear the country’s export industry could lose its competitive edge on the overseas market.
Economics Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann warned that Switzerland as a centre of manufacturing and research risks suffering great damage if the industry can no longer compete under the same conditions as its rivals in the EU.
“After all the US is Switzerland’s second most important trading partner behind the EU. It is therefore of paramount importance to us to be on a level playing field,” Schneider-Ammann said.
He raised the issue with a senior advisor of US President Barack Obama during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper reports.
Schneider-Ammann also discussed the planned free trade accord with his Mexican counterpart, Ildefonso Guajardo, during a three-day visit to Mexico, which ended on Saturday.
He said the government had to consider its options for a resumption of talks with Washington on a free trade accord. A previous attempt was abruptly stopped by the Swiss cabinet in 2006.
Free trade accords
Switzerland is not a member of the EU, but it has concluded more than 100 bilateral accords with Brussels on a broad range of issues.
The EU is Switzerland’s most important trading partner, ahead of the US and China.
Switzerland is currently trying to conclude negotiations with China and with India on free trade agreements.
There is also increasing political pressure at home for the government to act.
Representatives of the main parties want the government to try and reach a deal with Washington, but they agree that demands by Switzerland’s agriculture sector were leaving little hope for success.
The director of the Swiss-American Chamber of Commerce, Martin Naville, is pessimistic about the chances of Washington agreeing to a resumption of free trade talks.
“We were the only country to break off free trade talks with the US. If we come and knock on their door now […] they will want to know whether we’re willing to discuss agriculture,” he is quoted in the NZZ am Sonntag.
Talks between Switzerland and Brussels on a bilateral free trade accord in agriculture have been stalled. A year ago, parliament forced cabinet to suspend the negotiations launched in 2008.
There are concerns that opening the agriculture market to the EU would have a disastrous impact on Swiss farmers struggling to survive against foreign competition.
By Urs Geiser, swissinfo.ch and agencies