Expert calls for conditional EU membership

Political scientist René Schwok (RDB) RDB

Political scientist René Schwok tells swissinfo he was not surprised by the positive outcome of the vote on a labour accord with the European Union.

This content was published on September 26, 2005 - 16:14

Schwok says he thinks the decision to extend the free movement of people treaty to the ten new member states will not lead to major changes in Swiss-EU relations over the next decade.

Schwok, a professor at Geneva University's Graduate Institute of European Studies, has been a long-time observer of Switzerland's political scene.

swissinfo: Is the result of Sunday's ballot a boost for Switzerland's foreign policy?

René Schwok: It's first of all a victory for the cabinet and is an endorsement of the policy of bilateral treaties with the EU. But in a way the "yes" is almost a non-event.

A "no" vote would have weakened Switzerland's position and led to a crisis with Brussels.

swissinfo: It is the second time this year the Swiss electorate came out in favour of closer ties with the EU and rejected the anti-European stance of the rightwing Swiss People's Party.

R.S.: True, but Sunday's result was less of a defeat for the People's Party than the ballot in June on closer security cooperation with the EU. Simply because their most prominent member, Justice Minister Christoph Blocher, urged voters to follow recommendations of the cabinet.

The June vote was the big snub for the People's Party. The whole party was united on the issue and it invested a considerable amount of money in the campaign.

swissinfo: Does the policy of bilateral treaties have a future?

R.S.: Bilateral accords can't be the answer to everything and they are complex and mean long negotiations.

But Switzerland chose this policy because it is not ready for full EU membership. I don't see any other solution for the next ten years.

Switzerland can avoid being marginalised by adhering to the bilateral policy. The downside is that the country risks being left somewhat at a distance.

All the main political parties are basically against full membership, with the exception – at least officially - of the [centre-left] Social Democrats.

The business community has also come out against. Switzerland has already been benefiting from the advantages of the bilateral accords. There is no majority among the country's 26 cantons.

In a word, there is no choice but to continue with the policy of bilateral treaties.

swissinfo: What about the idea of "membership light", a concept you have been advocating?

R.S.: It is a form of membership which takes into account the concerns of EU opponents in Switzerland and includes certain opt-out clauses.

Switzerland could, for instance, opt out of the common currency, like Sweden.

It could demand guarantees for its traditional neutrality and its defence policy, as is the case with Malta and Cyprus. Or, like Britain, it could try to negotiate a reduced rate for value added tax. Something similar could be considered for banking secrecy.

There are numerous possibilities and the result of negotiations would have to be convincing enough for EU opponents.

The cabinet has said it will publish a report about the future of Swiss-EU relations by the end of 2007. They could come up with a list of other suggestions.

swissinfo: What is behind the call by Swiss eurosceptics who on Sunday demanded the withdrawal of the country's request for talks on full EU membership?

R.S.: The People's Party is using this tactic to relaunch a political debate with other parties and show off its might. But it's no more than shadow boxing.

The electorate is the ultimate power which decided to effectively freeze the application. It rejected proposals to withdraw or unfreeze the request in nationwide votes.

As Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey pointed out, the Swiss applied for an association with the then European Economic Community in 1963, but the request was forgotten and it was never formally withdrawn.

To sum up the situation, the Swiss request for EU membership is of no importance to Brussels.

swissinfo: In 1992 the Swiss rejected the European Economic Area treaty, reflecting a divide between pro-EU French-speakers and sceptical German-speakers. But this division was no longer there on Sunday.

R.S.: Ironically, Switzerland is not far away from where it hoped to be in 1992, but with a long detour.

As far as the different positions of supporters and opponents go, I think everybody has become more pragmatic. Western Switzerland has become a bit disillusioned with the EU, while the majority German speakers no longer see Brussels as the evil incarnate.

You could say they have all turned into real Swiss. Except for the Italian-speaking minority in Ticino [who voted no because of concerns about an influx of workers from neighbouring Italy].

swissinfo-interview: Isabelle Eichenberger

Key facts

Final result of Sunday's vote:
Yes: 56%.
No: 44%.
The extension of the treaty on the free movement of people was supported by 19 cantons.
It was rejected by seven cantons.
Turnout was 54%.

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In brief

Switzerland negotiated 16 bilateral accords after voters' rejection in 1992 of the European Economic Area treaty.

Further bilateral negotiations could include the electricity market, services, closer police as well as scientific cooperation.

The Swiss government is expected to decide on a withdrawal of EU membership application next month.

It is also due to publish a report on future relations with Brussels before the end of 2007.

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