Swiss foreign minister foresees tweaks to EU treaty, no overhaul

This content was published on March 29, 2019 - 16:53
Renat Kuenzi in Aarau,
Foreign Minister Cassis (left) addressing the audience at this year's Democracy Days event in Aarau.

Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis has rejected calls for outright re-negotiations on an accord with the European Union about the future of bilateral relations. He says Switzerland’s room for manoeuvre lies in smaller adjustments to the long-awaited agreement.

Cassis was a keynote speaker at this year’s Democracy Days organised by the Centre for Democratic StudiesExternal link in the northern Swiss city of Aarau on Thursday.

In an interview with, Cassis welcomed notably the position of a key parliamentary committee on the planned - and highly controversial - umbrella accord, covering all the existing bilateral agreements with Brussels.

The government has invited the cantons, political parties, parliamentary committees, the business sector, the trade unions as well as the country’s research community to comment on the planned agreement with the EU.

The Swiss government said it would consider their responses and decide on its position by the end of June. Voters will possibly have the final say on the accord in 2021 at the very earliest.

The agreement with the EU has been a crucial foreign policy issue for years. Last December, negotiations on a so-called framework agreement were concluded following about six years of talks.

Cassis quipped that the so called ‘institutional framework agreement’ is almost like the Bible: “Nobody has really read it.” Given the signals from Brussels about the accord and the deadlines, is Switzerland fighting with its back to the wall?

Ignazio Cassis: We certainly are under pressure, but we won’t be blackmailed. There are time limits for everything in a direct democracy. The EU will sooner or later have to accept it in one form or another.

The dialogue with the European Commission will continue once the ongoing consultation procedure in Switzerland is completed. I’m optimistic that many of the controversial points raised in the consultation can be brought again in talks with Brussels.

However, there won’t be any re-negotiations as such – it was made clear to us. There are other possibilities in a political process, with amendments, corrections and more precise wordings. This is the way forward. Earlier this week a foreign policy committee in parliament came out in favour of the accord, albeit with some reservations. Is this the kind of support you had hoped for?

I.C.: It is indeed an important step signalling that it’s possible to move ahead under the provision that some controversial points are examined in more detail.

Last December, even the biggest optimists didn’t believe that is possible to have some room for manoeuvre between the straight “yes” to the accord and a conditional “yes”.

The debate in Switzerland has become more factual and constructive over the past three years. Now we know the price we have to pay for a “yes” or a “no”, considering the costs and benefits for us. The ongoing discussions in Britain about the consequences of the 2016 Brexit vote to leave the EU have made it clear there are no simple solutions. What does this mean for Switzerland?

I.C.: The bigger the tensions between Britain and the EU the more difficult the situation is becoming for Switzerland. In such a situation everybody is anxious, and nobody is willing to compromise. I hope Britain will find a way for an orderly Brexit. On a completely different subject of interest to the expatriate Swiss community: An audit of the Switzerland’s diplomatic missions abroad recently put in doubt the need for 31 small Swiss embassies and consulates, even in Europe. Are you planning on closing these missions and how much money could be saved with such a move?

I.C.: No, there are no such plans. It remains important for Switzerland to present around the world…[but] we don’t need fully staffed embassies everywhere. In some cases it makes political sense to simply be present in a country. It’s not the number of staff that counts.

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