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Calmy-Rey defends Switzerland in Brussels

Calmy-Rey was looking for a break in the clouds in Brussels Keystone

The Swiss foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, travelled to Brussels on Monday to try to break the deadlock on a second round of bilateral negotiations with the European Union.

The Swiss want the entire package to be wrapped up as soon as possible and are refusing to consider a dossier-by-dossier approach.

Calmy-Rey met the European Commission president, Romano Prodi, the external relations commissioner, Chris Patten, as well as the EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana.

After holding talks with the Swiss foreign minister, Patten said it was time for both sides to move the negotiations along.

“We are working closely together, but there are still a number of sticking points,” he said. “I would hope solutions can be found… I think it is time to make progress.”

The Swiss government has stated that talks on the next batch of bilateral treaties should be concluded as soon as possible. It added that the solutions should serve the legitimate interests of Switzerland.

Difference of opinion

While the European Commission is aware of this stance, it would prefer to consider each heading separately, in particular the agreement on taxing savings of EU citizens in Switzerland, which Bern has not yet signed.

“A rapid conclusion to this agreement would be in the interest of Switzerland,” said the Commission in a report to EU member states at the beginning of January. “This agreement maintains banking secrecy and offers considerable financial benefits to Swiss businesses.”

But before it signs up to the taxation accord, Switzerland wants concessions from the EU on the Schengen and Dublin agreements, which govern cross-border crime and asylum.

Last week, the cabinet announced that, given the current state of play with the bilaterals, EU membership would not be one of its policy targets for the next four years.

But it said it had no plans to withdraw Switzerland’s application to join the EU.

Dead end

Negotiations on Schengen are at a standstill because Switzerland wants an opt-out in the area of judicial cooperation. Bern fears that banking secrecy might be compromised by the exchange of information between police and justice authorities. But Brussels is refusing to budge.

“The EU is offering Switzerland exactly what it wants, to realise an agreement on the model of that concluded with Norway and Sweden,” said the Commission.

“Now, [Switzerland] is asking for an exception, which would create a dangerous precedent.”

Brussels is supported by most EU member states on the Schengen issue, with only Germany seeming willing to compromise with Switzerland.

Free movement

Another difficult area is the existing bilateral agreement on the free movement of people between Switzerland and the EU. Calmy-Rey is to discuss when this accord is to be extended to the ten new member states, which join the EU on May 1.

The next round of discussions will take place on February 4 in Bern, when the EU is likely to press Switzerland to contribute financially to the EU’s enlargement process.

Bern has still not replied to the EU’s request for assistance and the latter estimates a contribution would be comparable to that of Norway – in the region of SFr335 million ($266 million) per year.

swissinfo, Barbara Speziali in Brussels

Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey has met EU officials in Brussels.

Her trip was aimed at defending Swiss interests during the second round of bilateral negotiations.

The Swiss and EU opened the latest round of bilaterals in June 2001.

The EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, reiterated his support on Monday for the Swiss-backed Geneva Accord, an unofficial peace plan for the Middle East.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR