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Switzerland takes a step closer to Europe

The finishing touches have been put on the Swiss-EU bilaterals Keystone

From June 1, seven bilateral agreements between Switzerland and the European Union are due to take effect - prompting calls for closer business ties with the EU.

This content was published on March 26, 2002 - 17:30

The date marks the go-live day for the long-awaited bilateral agreements signed between Switzerland and the 15 EU nations to liberalise labour markets, agriculture, air traffic and research.

The final green light comes after over four years of negotiations and parliamentary debates.

The Swiss government's foreign promotion wing, Osec Business Network Switzerland, highlighted the news by launching a new guide for companies preparing to leap into the EU market for the first time.

According to Osec chief executive officer Balz Hösly, Switzerland's economic future depends on its medium and small businesses integrating with Europe.

Courage to expand into Europe

"We believe that some Swiss companies that perhaps haven't dared, as yet, to tackle the European Union because of administrative and legal hurdles will now have the courage to actually take this step," Hösly told swissinfo.

"We believe this is absolutely essential for the Swiss economy. We must not forget that every second franc is earned abroad," he said.

One of the most important changes triggered by the bilateral agreements will be the easing-up of the Swiss labour market for foreigners.

Free movement of workers

European Union citizens will have the right to live and to buy property in Switzerland if they win an employment contract. Likewise, Swiss citizens will be able to work and live in EU countries.

The agreements include detailed provisions to recognise professional and technical qualifications between Switzerland and the EU.

Hösly believes the labour-market reforms will help Switzerland tackle the time bomb of an ageing population.

"It is urgent. We must not forget that by the year 2030, 73 retired persons have to be supported by 100 working persons in Germany," he said.

"In Switzerland it's even worse. There are 80 retired persons [who will] have to be supported by 100 working people.

"So, in other words, who is feeding the economy with qualified personnel?"

Ageing population

Hösly said the ageing crisis would ultimately need to be dealt with on a global basis.

"Europe will not get around the fact it will need to open itself up to qualified personnel from the outside.

"This is an issue that will occupy politicians, not only in Switzerland but in Europe, for the next 20 years."

The looming kick-off date for the bilateral agreements is also likely to pose new challenges for European countries that may wish to do business with Swiss firms or workers.

"I think Swiss companies are better informed than companies from European markets," Hösly said.

He said it was essential that EU firms make themselves aware of the changes along with the potential benefits.

"[And] for Switzerland, it's essential as a location to have these bilateral treaties because this gives big companies the ability to consider Switzerland as their future base," he said.

The new Osec information guide (in German) was published jointly with canton Zurich, and the University of Zurich's European Institute and is entitled "Switzerland plus 7 - what the seven bilateral treaties will bring".

by Jacob Greber

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