Switzerland and the United States will start exploratory discussions this autumn on a free-trade accord, Economics Minister Joseph Deiss said on Friday.
The agreement would see the abolition of import duties on US goods, which currently average 4.5 per cent. However, the US is being cautious.
Speaking in Washington at the end of a three-day working visit, Deiss said experts from both sides would meet "in September or in autumn". A decision would be taken before the end of the year on whether to open negotiations on an agreement.
Deiss told swissinfo both sides were agreed that they didn’t want the process to drag on.
"Neither side wants to enter into long negotiations lasting several years," he said.
US not ready
However, the US said it was not yet ready to commit itself to free-trade talks.
"The administration would need to consult extensively with the Congress and affected US stakeholders before we could signal any willingness to discuss the possibility of negotiating an FTA [free-trade agreement]," a spokesman for the US Trade Representative's office said.
The Swiss government took a decision in May to broaden the focus of its foreign policy and to increase cooperation with the US – Switzerland’s biggest trade partner. A month later it charged the economics ministry with initiating dialogue with Washington.
Deiss, who travelled to Washington from China, held talks with Trade Representative Rob Portman, as well as representatives of Congress and the US administration.
Agriculture was an important theme in his talks with the Americans, Deiss said.
"We are prepared to put the agriculture dossier on our programme of discussions," the minister said. "And I would not exclude talks on GMOs [genetically modified organisms].
"But we also have a legitimate right to maintain a productive agriculture, even if from an economic standpoint it is not competitive on the world market," he told swissinfo.
The US is Switzerland’s biggest export market after the European Union, accounting for 10.4 per cent of exports. It is also the most important target country for Swiss investors, with Swiss investments in the US currently totalling SFr80 billion ($62 billion).
The US invests the same amount in Switzerland making it the country’s biggest investor.
Swiss farmers have opposed a free-trade agreement out of a fear of increased competition. Consumer protection agencies have also raised concerns that genetically modified produce could end up on Swiss plates.
The Swiss watch industry as well as the pharma- and chemicals industries would profit most from a free-trade agreement with the US.
But Swiss farmers fear that it could open the domestic market to cheap imports of US cereals, maize or rice.