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Bilateral thinking Swiss-EU ‘psychodrama’ has papers rubbing their eyes

Leuthard and Juncker

Those were the days: former Swiss President Doris Leuthard and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker greet each other in Bern last November


Are trade unions holding the Swiss government hostage? Is the political left thinking about joining the ranks of hardcore socialists and eurosceptics found in other European countries? Whatever’s going on, Swiss newspapers are unimpressed. 

“You rub your eyes in astonishment. Politicians from left to right, with the exception of the [rightwing] Swiss People’s Party, had just declared that a framework agreement with the EU was of the utmost importance to the Swiss economy and absolutely central to relations with the EU. Horror scenarios were painted on walls, portraying the equivalent recognition of the Swiss stock exchangeexternal link with the trading venues in Frankfurt and Paris as vital for our economy,” the SonntagsZeitung wrote in an editorial on Sunday. 

“And now this. The presidents of the country’s largest pro-European parties, the [leftwing] Social Democratic Party and the [centre-right] Radical Party, are calling for a suspension of talks with a new start – and not before the elections next year. The official reason is the issue of whether one needs to wait eight days to carry out inspections on construction sites. That is, if you’ll excuse me, completely unbelievable.” 

What’s working the editorialist up so much is the news last week that Swiss trade unions  refused to sit down with the government, which was hoping to find common ground for negotiations on a labour agreement with Brussels, one of the last sticking points for a framework agreement aimed at consolidating a system of bilateral accords

The unions warned that the government was about to weaken safeguards protecting Swiss businesses and workers against EU companies trying to undercut Swiss salary levels. 

“The comrades clearly hoped for a bit of bartering with employers, but which they’ve now not received. Apparently, in the world of business at the moment the possible damage caused by EU punitive measures is no longer considered too great and they are therefore remaining tough. If the plan works and the unloved framework agreement is delayed once more for a year or two, then of course the collapse of the negotiations will benefit both parties. Because the People’s Party is already looking forward to exploiting the issue in next year’s elections.” 

On Sunday, Christian Levrat, president of the leftwing Social Democratic Party, told the SonntagsZeitung that Foreign Affairs Minister Ignazio Cassis had to make one last attempt to reach an agreement with Brussels without reforming the supporting measures. Otherwise, the government would have to suspend negotiations with Brussels, he said. 

The government is due to decide in the next few weeks whether to seek a successful conclusion of the negotiations – described on Sunday by Le Matin Dimanche as a “psychodrama” – or whether no acceptable deal can be struck. 

‘Turning point’ 

“The Swiss left is at a turning point” was the headline of the editorial in the NZZ am Sonntag. 

“The much-vaunted Swiss concordance has reached a deadlock: until now it had resulted in a majority neither for pension reform nor for a reform of corporate taxes. And since this week it’s clear that it no longer works when it comes to European politics either,” the paper wrote.

It said the refusal of trade unions to participate in talks on supporting measures had the potential to break negotiations for a framework agreement with the EU. 

“Of course, all parties in the Federal Council are responsible in this matter, but the attitude of the left deserves special attention. After all, a European political partner is turning its back who has always supported [European politics] in recent times – and helped shape it in good times and bad.”

It’s true, the paper concluded, that there have always been voices in the leftist camp that have criticised the European single market as a “neoliberal” concept. “But they were in the minority. Now the page seems to be turning. Is the Swiss left gradually joining the group of those European parties and movements that are pursuing a hard socialist and at the same time eurosceptic course? Will Sahra Wagenknecht [in Germany], Jeremy Corbyn [in Britain] and Jean-Luc Mélenchon [in France] soon have a Swiss partner? The Social Democrats must decide.”

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