Switzerland and the EU edge closer

Although Switzerland lies in the very heart of Europe, it is not a member of the European Union. Relations with the EU are governed by bilateral agreements.

This content was published on May 25, 2007 - 13:32

Swiss voters have had ample opportunity to express themselves on the question of European politics and have made it clear that they are not interested in joining the EU.

Switzerland's membership application, dating back to1992, has been lodged but lies dormant in Brussels. It was officially frozen on February 5, 1993. All indications are that there is no prospect of Switzerland becoming a member of the EU in the medium term.

In autumn 2005, the Swiss government downgraded EU membership from a strategic goal to a long-term option. At around that time, public approval for EU membership sank to a record low. An ongoing study run by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology showed that only one third of those polled unreservedly wanted Switzerland to join the EU.

This marked decline in support for EU membership is countered by widespread support for the bilateral approach which has been adopted. In two referendums in 2000 and 2005, voters endorsed several accords that regulated Swiss relations with the EU. The agreements determine which parts of EU community law are also applicable to Switzerland.

EEA membership blocked

After the people rejected membership of the European Economic Area on December 7, 1992, the government found itself in a quandary. The then economics minister Jean-Pascal Delamuraz called it a "black day".

The result was all the more surprising because only one political party had called for a no vote, the at that time small, right-wing nationalist Swiss People's Party. All the other mainstream parties, along with business organisations stood firmly in favour of greater economic integration with Europe.

In the wake of the defeat, the government and representatives of the then European Community countries began to push for bilateral negotiations between Switzerland and the EC.

The bilateral way

The delegations met for the first time in December 1994. There were seven dossiers to discuss: research, public procurement, the movement of people, technical trade barriers, agriculture, ground and air transport. Negotiations took exactly four years.

In December 1998 the government announced that it considered the outcome to be balanced and positive. The treaties improved economic competitiveness and minimised the negative consequences of isolation within Europe. However, despite the celebratory mood at the signing ceremony in Luxembourg, the agreements were not yet valid.

Back in Switzerland the bilateral approach was not without detractors. Nationalist conservative circles saw it as EU membership through the back door and they managed to force a referendum on the issue. However when the agreements were put to a public vote, a clear majority supported them.

Common external borders

In the next round of negotiations, Switzerland and the EU addressed questions of security, asylum, agricultural produce, environment, media, training, pensions, statistics and public services.

The internal debate was most deeply divided on Switzerland signing up to the Dublin and Schengen accords, which meant adhering to a Europe-wide integrated asylum procedure and common external borders.

The Swiss People's Party and other right-wing parties selected these two issues from the bilateral accords as their battleground for a referendum. They feared a loss of sovereignty for Switzerland. More than 45 per cent of voters shared this view, but the majority were in favour of signing up to the Schengen and Dublin accords.

EU campaigners fight back

EU opponents are not the only ones to use the instruments of direct democracy to advance their cause. In 1995, five pro-Europe organisations launched the people's initiative "Yes to Europe", which called for EU membership talks to be taken up immediately.

A second initiative in favour of EU membership was withdrawn in 1997. When voters were finally able to vote on the "Yes to Europe" initiative in March 2001, the first bilateral agreements with the EU were already up and running.

For the majority this was the appropriate distance to keep from Europe. And this meant the call for immediate accession talks had no chance at the ballot box. Only 23 per cent supported the request.

Close ties

Even though Switzerland is not a member of the EU, it has very close ties with the group of nations. This is not just because Switzerland is entirely bordered by EU states (with the exception of Liechtenstein) but also because the EU is Switzerland's chief trading partner. Some 80 per cent of all imports come from EU countries, while 60 per cent of all Swiss exports are to the EU.

Since 2002, free movement of Swiss nationals and EU citizens from the "old" 15 member states has been introduced progressively under a bilateral agreement. As of June 1, 2007, all restrictions will have been lifted for these countries.

With the enlargement of the EU, the issue of extending the free movement accord to new member states has been raised. Swiss voters gave the go-ahead in 2006 to a progressive opening of borders. The decision does not however apply for the time being to the EU's newest members, Bulgaria and Romania.

Switzerland – European Union

Switzerland is not a member of the European Union.

The federal government describes EU membership as a "long-term option".

Switzerland is linked to the EU via a series of bilateral accords.

The EU is Switzerland's main trading partner.

In the 1990s debate over Switzerland's policy towards Europe polarised the national political landscape.

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