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Swiss-EU relations and research: what’s next?

Where next for Swiss research? © Keystone / Gaetan Bally

Switzerland’s top research position depends on its links to key European funding programmes, universities say. SWI swissinfo.ch looks at where the country stands after the rupture with Brussels over the ‘framework’ agreement.

This content was published on June 5, 2021 - 10:00

On May 26, the Swiss government announced that it had rejected an institutional agreement with the European Union, marking the end of years of negotiations towards a framework treaty to regulate long-term ties.

Swiss participation in the EU’s key Horizon Europe research funding programmes and the Erasmus+ student exchange scheme is not part of this institutional agreement. But there are fears that the EU might react by shutting Switzerland out of its research and exchange programmes. This already happened in 2014 after the controversial Swiss vote to re-introduce immigration quotas for EU citizens.

Switzerland was later able to rejoin Horizon 2020 - the second-largest source of public funding for Swiss researchers - and was intending to participate in the follow-on Horizon Europe 2021-2027. But the country is still locked out of full participation in Erasmus+.  Universities and students have been lobbying to again be part of both schemes, which they deem essential.

Universities say international cooperation is key and that Switzerland risks weakening its attractiveness and competitiveness if it is not part of Horizon.

What are the next steps concerning Swiss participation in Horizon Europe and Erasmus+?

Horizon Europe

The Swiss are essentially ready to go. Parliament rubberstamped the funding dispatch for Swiss participation in Horizon EuropeExternal link in December 2020. Also included were the related EuratomExternal link Programme covering nuclear research and innovation, the ITERExternal link nuclear fusion megaproject and the Digital Europe Programme to promote digital tech.

In addition, the Swiss negotiating mandate for Horizon Europe has been adopted and a revised national ordinance on the topic entered into force in March 2021.

“Switzerland has therewith undertaken the necessary steps for its association to Horizon Europe and several other programmes and now awaits the corresponding steps from the European Commission,” the Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI)External link told SWI swissinfo.ch in email comments. No official negotiations have yet taken place.

Important note: Swiss participation in the Horizon programme forms part of the first series of bilateral agreements with the EU that came into force in 2002. This agreement needs to be renewed for continuing participation in the scheme.


Erasmus+

Switzerland currently has partner status for Erasmus+External link (2014-2020) in which participation rights are limitedExternal link to individual projects. The Federal Council (Swiss government) is however seeking to obtain associated country status (full participation) for Erasmus+ 2021-2027. Switzerland is awaiting the EU to take the corresponding steps, SERI said. In case of successful negotiations on full association, a funding dispatch would be presented to parliament as soon as the necessary costs can be reliably estimated, added SERI.

In the meantime, a Swiss-funded interim solution for exchanges, the Swiss-European Mobility Programme (SEMP), will continue. Funding for this of around CHF 200 million ($221 million)) for 2021-2024 was secured in autumn 2020.

What is the Swiss stance on the concerns raised by universities over research?

The consequences of the Federal Council's framework agreement decision on Switzerland's association to Horizon Europe “cannot be estimated at present”, SERI said.

The agreed funding dispatch outlines three possible scenarios: full association, partial association or participation as a third country. The dispatch therefore allows Swiss researchers to be funded even if Switzerland only participates as a partially associated or third country. “Hence, the funding of Swiss participants in all collaborative projects that are open to third countries is secured,” SERI said.

In the case of a third-country mode, Swiss participants in collaborative projects would receive their funding directly from SERI, as was already the case during the partial association between 2014 and 2016. In addition, SERI is examining the use of national funds for applications for individual projects, for example at the European Research Council (ERC), that have been positively evaluated by the European Commission.

What else does SERI say?

It maintains that Switzerland is still an excellent location for research and innovation and an active partner in the European Research and Innovation Area. Switzerland's ranking as a centre of higher education and research can be demonstrated in more ways than one, it argues. “It would therefore be in the EU's interest to have Switzerland on board,” SERI said.

EU’s flagship programme

The 9th EU-Framework Programme for Research and Innovation (Horizon Europe; 2021-2027) officially entered into force on the EU side on May 12, 2021. It is worth €95.5 billion (CHF105 billion).

Its full launch is being delayed however due to a row between member states and the Commission over whether it should allow non-EU countries like Switzerland to take part in the sensitive quantum and space projects, sciencebusiness reportsExternal link.

More than 30 European countries are participating in Erasmus+ 2021–2027 (budget €26.2 billion), including several non-EU members.

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