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EU to open office in Bern "by end of year"

The EU flag will soon be flying in Bern

(Keystone)

The European Commission has confirmed that it intends to open a permanent mission in the Swiss capital, Bern, by the end of the year.

Details of the plan to establish a diplomatic presence in Switzerland come two months ahead of a key nationwide vote on Swiss ties with the European Union.

Switzerland is not an EU member but has negotiated a series of bilateral accords with Brussels.

EU diplomats stress that the aim of the new office – which is expected to be located close to Switzerland’s federal parliament building - is not to meddle in the country’s domestic political affairs but to strengthen ties with Swiss politicians and ordinary voters.

European parliamentarian Diana Wallis told swissinfo an EU office would help cement ties between Bern and Brussels.

"Until now the EU has not had a direct presence in the Swiss capital, which makes contact between the two sides a bit more difficult," she said.

"It’s much better to have an office whose staff can maintain a daily working relationship with Swiss colleagues."

Green light

The Commission gave the green light to funding for the bureau last month, but details of the timing of the opening only emerged this week during a meeting between Swiss and European parliamentarians in Fribourg.

According to Wallis, who heads the European parliament’s delegation responsible for relations with Switzerland, a representative from the Commission as well as the Swiss ambassador to Brussels both attended the meeting.

"Both sides said they were in agreement that the office would open and that we should expect this to happen before the end of the year," she said.

Officials in Brussels have yet to decide the size of the mission in Bern and are in the process of determining who should head the delegation.

Erwin Jutzet, a member of the Swiss parliamentary delegation which deals with the European parliament, said he was not concerned about who would be appointed head of mission.

"I am just relieved the decision [to open the office] has been made," he said.

"We’ve been waiting a long time for the EU to open a permanent mission in Bern. The office will facilitate contacts between both sides and we will be able to clear up any misunderstandings or problems much faster than is now the case."

Swaying sceptics

Jutzet rejects any suggestion that the presence of diplomats from Brussels in the heart of the Swiss capital will only serve to rankle Eurosceptics in the country and stir up anti-EU sentiment.

"If people want to criticise the EU or just find out information they will in future be able to contact them directly.

"And there’s no question of the office being able to exert influence on Swiss politics. It will be just like other embassies, where countries have a presence here but don’t get directly involved in internal affairs."

Brussels has made it clear that an upcoming vote in Switzerland on September 25 on whether to extend a free-movement accord to include the ten new EU member states will not affect plans to open the mission.

Wallis said she was "hoping for a positive outcome" in September and had "seen nothing to indicate" that the EU might abandon plans to establish a presence in Bern if Swiss voters reject extension of the treaty.

"Whatever happens, Switzerland remains a very important trading partner of the EU and there will always be a need for closer contact and a better flow of information."

swissinfo, Ramsey Zarifeh

Key facts

The Swiss voted in favour of joining the EU's Schengen/Dublin accords governing crime and asylum in a nationwide ballot last month.
They will return to the polls in September to vote on whether to extend an existing free-movement accord with Brussels to include the ten new EU member states.

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