Swiss-EU disputes could go to ‘arbitration court’, says government

Roberto Balzaretti (left), State Secretary in charge of EU negotiations, with Foreign Affairs Minister Ignazio Cassis on Monday in Bern. Keystone

The government says it is prepared to accept the establishing of a special arbitration court that would settle legal disputes arising from Swiss-EU bilateral relations.

This content was published on March 5, 2018 - 16:00

Foreign Affairs Minister Ignazio Cassis announced the government’s support for such a court on Monday in Bern, where he also gave an update on the current efforts to move along negotiations on an institutional framework agreement between Switzerland and the EU.

Currently, a diplomatic-technical “joint commission” monitors the complex ties that govern Swiss-EU relations; however, agreement is needed on a legal body that would give the last word on disputes that the commission is unable to resolve.

The idea of an arbitration court was first suggested in January by Brussels, who reportedly see it as a means of circumventing Swiss reluctance to allow the European Court of Justice (ECJ) make rulings on relations.

Any EU body with such power has proven controversial in Switzerland, particularly on the political right, who fear a loss of sovereignty to such “foreign judges”.

Cassis did not provide further details on what such an arbitration court would look like, saying that all remained open. In January, the NZZ newspaper cited sources which said that the proposed panel could consist of three members, with each side naming one judge and the third being chosen by mutual consent.

‘Not an objective in itself’

The government also reiterated that the institutional framework agreement demanded by Brussels only applies to five of the 120 patchwork bilateral accords between Switzerland and the EU: the free movement of people, mutual recognition of standards, agricultural products, air transport, and ground transport.

The government also stated that the framework agreement – which Cassis said he was confident about finalising by the end of 2018 – “is not an objective in itself, but rather an instrument allowing an efficient management of the five bilateral agreements concerned”.

Negotiations continue in parallel to reach agreements on areas including financial equivalence, research cooperation, data-sharing in the context of the Galileo space programme, public health cooperation, and the electricity market.

The European Commission and most of the political parties in Switzerland reacted positively to Cassis' statements on Monday. The conservative right People's Party, however, criticised the government for bowing to Brussels will, and called once again for the planned institutional framework agreement to be scrapped.

Swiss press reaction

"Switzerland now finally seems to have a plan for what it wants in European politics," the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) noted. The Tages-Anzeiger and Der Bund were more cautious: What the Federal Council decided and presented on Monday "is not a new start, but an adjustment of the negotiating mandate". The French-speaking papers 24heures and La Tribune de Genève were more critical. The "reset" of Cassis is merely a "marketing gimmick", they wrote. La Liberté accused Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis of putting new wine into old bottles. 

The commentary in the Tages-Anzeiger and Der Bund believe that the arbitration court model is an "acceptable way" for both sides. However, the anti-European Swiss People’s Party – the largest in parliament - will fight any such agreement to defend Switzerland's independence. The NZZ also remains sceptical saying that the arbitration model is not a magic formula to solve all problems. As is often the case, the devil lies in the details. 

The Tages-Anzeiger and Der Bund said the decisive factor for the government is to win acceptance of its strategy from the other major political parties.

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