The Swiss President, Moritz Leuenberger, has received assurances by top ministers in Belgium and France that their respective parliaments will ratify the bilateral accord concluded in 1999 between Switzerland and the European Union in time for its implementation in January. A third EU member, Ireland, is also expected to ratify the treaty soon.
Leuenberger and the Belgian prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, who met for talks in Brussels on Wednesday, said they expected the EU and Switzerland to clear the way for negotiations on Switzerland's request to join the EU's Schengen and Dublin agreements on joint border and immigration controls. Belgium currently holds the EU presidency.
But the Swiss president was also in the Belgian capital to try influence the ratification process of Switzerland's bilateral accord with the EU, concluded in 1999 and ratified by the Swiss parliament more than a year ago. The accord, which needs to be approved by each of the parliaments in the EU's 15 member states, was expected to be in force by January, 2001, but with ratification by Belgium, France and the Republic of Ireland still outstanding, even its implementation by January 2002 may be in jeopardy.
Observers in Belgium say the crises of the two nations' carriers, Swissair and Sabena, have ceased to be a political obstacle to Belgium ratifying the agreement. Earlier this year, members of the Belgian Senate had threatened to defeat the ratification bill if Swissair, which owns a 49 per-cent share in Sabena, didn't deliver what they saw as a promise to become a majority shareholder.
Complex ratification process
Rather than political manoeuvring, the ratification of the Swiss-EU treaty is bogged down by Belgium's complex political system, in which seven parliaments have to ratify the document, observers say. Of the seven parliaments, the two regional chambers of Flanders and Walloon have so far not ratified the treaty.
There has been growing impatience in Switzerland at the delay in ratifying the accords. Switzerland implemented its commitments, such as abolishing a weight limit for lorries, at the beginning of the year; meanwhile, the EU has demanded Switzerland's cooperation in unrelated matters, such as stricter measures against cross-border fraud.
But while the accord, which entails treaties in seven separate policy areas, such as transport and free movement of people, is of high importance to Switzerland, some parliaments in the 15 EU member states have given it little priority. This is especially the case in France and the Republic of Ireland, where the treaty hasn't been ratified either.
Leuenberger, who is also Switzerland's minister of transport, asked his French counterpart, minister of transport Jean-Claude Gayssot, for his support to get the ratification bill through France's Assemblé Nationale in the coming months.
Leuenberger was in Paris on Tuesday to discuss a Swiss-French railway link for the Basel-Mulhouse international airport.
In the Republic of Ireland, the country's ministry of justice has "attached" the Swiss-EU ratification bill to an unrelated carrier's liability bill to be debated in the Dail, Ireland's lower chamber of parliament, in its next session, beginning in October. The liability bill, aimed at fining transport carriers that bring illegal immigrants to Ireland, is deemed controversial and important enough to assure a swift parliamentary process.
However, some observers were uncertain whether the bill could pass both the Dail and the Senate before the end of November, the time frame quoted by Swiss government officials as a deadline if the accord is to come into force by January, 2002.
by Markus Haefliger