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Switzerland takes a step closer to Europe

Switzerland is forging closer and closer ties with the European Union Keystone

June 1 saw a landmark day in Swiss relations with the European Union - it marked the start of a process which will gradually lead to open borders.

A series of seven bilateral accords governing trade issues and the free movement of people finally came into force on Saturday.

Swiss citizens will see the benefits of the accords more quickly than their EU counterparts. They will be able to live and work in any of the 15 member states within two years. EU nationals will have to wait rather longer before they are entitled to the same rights in Switzerland.

Swiss farmers and businesses will enjoy similar advantages by being able to sell their products in the EU before their European counterparts are given similar rights in Switzerland.

Switzerland’s ambassador to Britain, Bruno Spinner, told swissinfo that the implementation of the “bilaterals” marks a new and important era in Swiss-EU relations.

“It’s a moment of hope,” he said. “I hope that the individuals who benefit from these agreements use the new freedoms, and that there will be active participation of people all around Europe.”

The accords are also expected to give a boost to Swiss business. David Syz of the economics ministry predicts that economic growth will increase to two per cent within the next five years as a result of the bilateral agreements.

Free movement of people

The accord dealing with the free movement of people will lead to the gradual opening up of labour markets in Switzerland and the EU.

It will be easier for Swiss to live and work in EU countries and at the same time the rules governing the employment of EU citizens in Switzerland will be relaxed.

The transition phase will last two years within the EU – after which the Swiss will have exactly the same rights as nationals from any of the 15 member states.

The residence requirements will be the same and there will be no need for special permits for those who want to practise a trade such as hairdressing, plumbing or building, for example.

Swiss business will find it easier to relocate staff to other countries within the EU without having to complete a mountain of administrative requirements and regulations.

One country, Britain, is not insisting on the two-year transition phase, which means that as of June 1 all Swiss citizens will be treated on exactly the same footing as EU nationals.

José Bessard of the European Integration Office in Bern says Swiss already living and working in the EU will feel the benefits immediately. “They’ll get all the advantages of the treaty from June 1,” he said. “There is no transition period for Swiss currently working in the EU, but if you want to move there, you may have to wait for up to two years.”

If everything goes to plan and the agreement is prolonged in seven years’ time, full freedom of movement will apply equally throughout Switzerland and the EU in 2014.

Lower prices

Swiss exports stand to benefit, particularly farmers, who will gain partial tariff-free access to the EU’s enormous market of 340 million consumers.

Although the trade accords do not amount to a blanket free trade agreement, custom duties will be scrapped on a whole range of Swiss products, including fruit and vegetables. At the same time, Switzerland will reduce tariffs on produce not grown in this country.

Eduard Hofer of the Ministry of Agriculture says both partners to the agreement have ensured there will be considerable protection in sensitive areas, and any changes will have to be reviewed over time.

“Although there are limits, there are development clauses which will allow both sides to raise the levels of the quotas if they want to,” he told swissinfo.

Hofer says the only exception will be cheese, with both Switzerland and the EU agreeing to abolish all duties on cheese and allow its unrestricted import and export after five years.

Eventually the Swiss should see a wider range of products on their shelves and a drop in prices.

But Simonetta Sommaruga, president of the Swiss consumers organisation does not think that it will happen overnight.

“I don’t think Swiss consumers will see an immediate change, but in the longer term we can expect to see a slight reduction of prices in general.”

Open skies

Lower prices are also expected in the airline sector, under the civil aviation accord, but Sommaruga said that price cuts would take some time to come through.

“In the medium term perhaps there will be some change, but not immediately,” she told swissinfo. “There might be more competition and more internal services within Switzerland and that would put pressure on prices, but nobody can promise that at the moment.”

The agreement gives Switzerland’s national carrier “swiss” access to Europe’s deregulated skies, but it will have to wait two years before it can pick up passengers in foreign cities during stopovers in EU countries. Duty free sales will still be possible in Swiss airports and flights originating in, or going to, Switzerland.

The other agreements that came into force on Saturday cover overland transport, technical barriers to trade, public procurement and research.

Bilaterals II

Switzerland’s push for closer ties the European Union will not end on June 1.

Discussions between the EU and Switzerland have already opened in four of the ten “leftover” policy areas from the first round of negotiations. These cover cross-border crime, processed agricultural products, the environment and statistics.

The EU has also given the green light for talks to start on the remaining six areas which include justice and police cooperation as well as asylum and migration.

Negotiations on cross-border crime have had a rocky path so far. After six rounds of discussions, the two sides have failed to agree on a harmonisation of legislation governing tax evasion.

A major Swiss concern is that complying with all EU legislation would undermine Switzerland’s banking secrecy.

Bruno Spinner said that the upcoming round of new negotiations will be difficult for both EU governments and Switzerland.

“The set up and general rules for negotiations have changed a lot,” he said. “The EU expects Switzerland to eventually join the union, and is negotiating on that basis, but without giving Switzerland the rights of membership.”

Spinner says some of the new demands could have implications for Swiss sovereignty, which would be anathema to the already sceptical Swiss, many of whom see the bilaterals as an alternative to membership rather than a first step.

by Jonathan Summerton

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR