The Council of the Swiss Abroad has called on the government to ensure that Switzerland is not cut off from education and research cooperation with the European Union countries despite the introduction of immigration quotas following February’s nationwide vote.
The assembly, meeting in the capital Bern on Saturday, expressed its concern about possible consequences for young Swiss wishing to take part in joint projects with the 28-nation bloc and for Switzerland’s competitive edge.
It voted overwhelmingly to support an open letter by an umbrella organisation of the Swiss youth organisations urging the government to do its utmost for Swiss students to be able to continue to take part in the Erasmus student exchange programme.
It also calls on the EU to show its support for Swiss students.
Earlier this month, the cabinet announced it was preparing interim solutions for researchers and students facing exclusion from European projects.
Several speakers on Saturday warned of making students the “first victims of a controversial political decision” and jeopardising the country’s reputation.
“It is not primarily about money, but Switzerland’s education standards. Do we want to play in the Premier League, or don’t we?”, said Franz Muheim, delegate from Britain.
He was supported by other members in the assembly who expressed concern about possible repercussions against Swiss expats living in EU member countries – notably in neighbouring France and Germany – and a lack of high-skilled foreign staff in Switzerland.
They warned of downplaying the impact of the decision by Swiss voters on February 9 to back a proposal by the rightwing Swiss People’s Party and curb immigration, notably re-introducing a quota system for EU citizens. “It is a disaster,” said Elisabeth Michel, senior delegate from Germany.
However, one member of the assembly also warned against taking sides in the controversy between Switzerland and Brussels.
Swiss Abroad Council
The 128-member assembly is part of the Swiss Abroad Organisation (OSA) and meets twice a year.
It is made up of representatives of Swiss clubs and associations abroad and of members of domestic institutions.
The assembly represents the interests of Swiss expatriates before the authorities and public opinion in Switzerland.
Henri Gétaz, senior official in the foreign ministry tried to assure the nearly 80 members meeting in Bern’s town hall that the government was well aware of the issues at stake for Switzerland.
He said moves were underway to break the impasse with Brussels, which suspended Swiss participation in some EU education and research programmes – notably Erasmus and Horizon 2020 – and put on hold negotiations on further bilateral treaties.
Gétaz made clear that the Swiss government was unhappy about the EU response and cautioned the next three years could be fraught with difficulties.
Switzerland has until February 2017 to implement the immigration quota and re-negotiate an agreement on the free movement of people with the EU – a crucial element of bilateral relations.
Brussels argues the Swiss immigration quota system is not compatible with a key principle of the free movement of people across the EU and its partner countries. It wants to know more details from Switzerland before negotiating possible additions to the existing 120 treaties.
Gétaz appealed for calm, but also encouraged the Swiss expatriate community to make its voice heard in the current political consultation about the future of the bilateral relations with Brussels.
Jacques-Simon Eggly, chairman of the assembly and president of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA) in his opening speech pointed out that a majority of Swiss expats came out against the quota system in the February vote.
He said partial results and research showed the Swiss Abroad tend to vote in favour of opening the country up to the outside world.
He pledged the OSA would continue to defend the interests of the Swiss expat community and dismissed allegations of a rift between resident Swiss voters and those living outside the country.
He reiterated the importance of electronic voting for the more than 732,000 Swiss expatriates across the globe for the parliamentary elections in October 2015.
Currently about 155,000 Swiss citizens have registered to take part in ballot box decisions, including regular votes on issues or in elections.