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Swiss stick to bilateral approach with EU

René Schwok says the bilateral approach has served the Swiss well so far. Charly Rappo

Political scientist René Schwok tells swissinfo that the the government's latest report on European policy is a confirmation of the route followed to date by Switzerland.

Schwok, a researcher at Geneva University, says the Swiss government will pursue the bilateral approach favoured by a majority of Swiss citizens and parliamentarians.

The government has confirmed that it will continue down this path for the time being, or at least as long as it serves best the country’s political and economic interests.

swissinfo: The government’s Europa 2006 report seems to please neither supporters nor opponents of European Union membership…

René Schwok: The report incorporates the mandate decided by a majority of Swiss citizens and parliamentarians. Its content does not surprise me: we are a democracy and it is therefore normal that it reflects the will of the majority in rejecting both an isolationist approach and membership of the European Union.

We shouldn’t forget it this came about because voters rejected both a proposal by the [populist rightwing] Lega dei Ticinesi and the [far-right] Swiss Democrats seeking the withdrawal of Switzerland’s application for EU membership, and another from the New European Movement Switzerland seeking faster adhesion.

In the report, I was pleased to read that the option of a “light” form of membership is possible, while previous reports and a number of government statements made it clear that membership with opt-outs was an unlikely scenario.

The thing I do find disappointing is a lack of reference to the role played by the EU. Not enough emphasis is given to the EU’s efforts to foster prosperity, or to stabilise the continent’s social and political situation.

swissinfo: Effectively, the government has decided not to decide. Why sit on the fence?

R.S.: It’s true that the report does not come out in favour of membership. But, you have to admit that the government is reaffirming the policy Switzerland has been following for the last 60 years: neither membership nor marginalisation, but a third way. A third way that has gone by different names over that period: free trade area, European Economic Area, and now bilateral agreements.

In fact, I would say that the government’s line is very well defined. Furthermore, the report clearly explains that the intention is to negotiate another fifteen or more agreements and strengthen the structure that governs them.

swissinfo: Switzerland has concluded two sets of sectorial bilateral agreements with the EU. Now it intends to negotiate similar agreements in a number of new areas.

R.S.: Switzerland has said that it will negotiate further bilateral agreements. Not in the form of a third package, as Brussels would seem to prefer – and the EU would like to include the issue of the cantons’ sovereignty in tax matters – but rather a series of individual agreements.

A great deal of uncertainty surrounds these future agreements. For example, we do not have a definitive list for the next round of negotiations, and we do not know if there will be issues that could sabotage the whole process. In addition, people are wondering if it will be possible to restructure the bilateral agreements into an all-embracing framework agreement.

It will also be necessary to resolve the issue surrounding the free trade agreement of 1972, which has given rise to two contrary interpretations: the EU, unlike Switzerland, believes that the document gives it the right to criticise tax policies implemented by some of the Swiss cantons.

swissinfo: There are fears that Swiss voters could reject Switzerland’s SFr1 billion contribution to the EU’s cohesion fund, threatening the bilateral agreements. Could the outcome of a single vote really bring down the whole edifice?

R.S.: From a legal point of view, it would be difficult for the EU to back out of the agreements it has already ratified. Even if Swiss voters said “no” to the cohesion fund contribution, my impression is that Switzerland and the EU would look for another solution.

I nevertheless believe that the Swiss will vote “yes”, given that they have already agreed to far more complicated and sensitive initiatives, such as Schengen and the extension of the free movement of persons.

swissinfo: What significance has the Swiss application for EU membership, on ice in Brussels for the past 14 years.

R. S.: I would not overestimate its value or significance. In my view, it was more of a diplomatic gesture, made so as not to irritate the EU. I think the EU is well aware that, for the time being, membership is not on Bern’s agenda.

swissinfo: In this extremely pragmatic and variable situation, how do you foresee relations between Switzerland and the European Union in ten years’ time?

R.S.: There will probably be a number of additional agreements and a more structured overall framework. I do not see what could happen in the next ten years to challenge the bilateral approach.

Before membership could be realistically discussed, Europe would suddenly have to become extremely attractive, or the centre-left would have to win a majority in the Swiss parliament.

We also have to acknowledge that the bilateral approach is working, and so it is normal to press ahead this way.

swissinfo-interview: Luigi Jorio and Marzio Pescia

Bern is considering the possibility of extending its series of sector-based bilateral agreements with the European Union.

On Wednesday, the cabinet decided to initiate exploratory talks with a view to a possible free-trade agreement in the agricultural-foodstuffs sector.

Farmers, businesses, the foodstuffs industry and retailers have not come out against the move, though a degree of scepticism is evident.

The government will decide next spring whether or not to go ahead with the negotiations.

A full-scale agreement would not be concluded before 2015.

1972: Switzerland and the European Community sign a free trade agreement.
1992: Bern lodges an application for membership of the European Union. In the same year, the people reject membership of the European Economic Area.
2002: the first package of bilateral agreements with the European Union comes into force.
2004: Bern and Brussels sign a second package of measures.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR