Switzerland and EU "at breaking point"

In 1992, Swiss voters barely voted down a bid to join the European Economic Area Keystone

Based in Brussels since 1972, Swiss business lawyer Jean Russotto has closely followed relations between Switzerland and the European Union for four decades. Relations are at breaking point, he says, but the situation is still salvageable.

This content was published on December 2, 2012 - 11:10
Tanguey Verhoosel in Brussels,

Although Switzerland remains an important trading partner for the EU, Brussels is no longer prepared to have arrangements with Switzerland made to measure, according to Russotto. Switzerland cannot risk jeopardising its position in the internal market, he says. “It is time to widen the debate.”

swissinfo: Where were you on December 6 1992 when Switzerland said no to the European Economic Area?

Jean Russotto: At home in Brussels anxiously awaiting the results of the vote. I heard the result from Swiss diplomats in the afternoon. They were devastated, as was I.  

swissinfo: In hindsight, was it justified? Hasn’t Switzerland managed to obtain everything it wanted through the bilateral agreements it concluded with the EU in 1999 and 2004?

J.R.: Switzerland has succeeded in rebuilding solid bridges with the EU. It participates in the internal market at a level of 80 per cent. But things have changed.

swissinfo: Why?


J.R.: Originally the bilateral approach was considered as a step towards a gradual adhesion to the EU. That aim was abandoned and bilateralism by sector became a doctrine in Bern. For its part, the EU, which has grown towards the east and the south of the continent, also changed its attitude. Switzerland remains an important partner for the EU but Brussels is no longer prepared to have everything made to measure for it. This is where the demand for institutional cooperation comes from.

swissinfo: The institutional problems are currently blocking the development of relations between Switzerland and the EU. Have we reached rupture point?


J.R.: Yes. The 27 members will adopt new conclusions on their relations with Switzerland in December. In 2008 and 2010 they outlined clear lines of thought on the future of bilateralism.

In 2012 they will take a position, among other things, on the proposals that Switzerland made in this context in June. The Swiss proposals will be deemed interesting but clearly insufficient. We are witnessing a doctrinal distancing between the two parties, which is where the blockage is coming from. It is up to the EU to assure as rigorously as possible the application of the rules of play of the internal market. Switzerland, on the other hand, is firmly attached to the notion of defending its sovereignty.

swissinfo : Is it impossible to overcome these entrenched positions?


J.R.: In Switzerland in any case the political class throw slogans around but they hardly reflect on the long-term objectives. They repeat the point that the EU is in full mutation, that its structure is becoming more and more variable. There seems to be a view that we can delay without risk, that Switzerland is going to conquer a particular square of the European chessboard anyway. This calculation is wrong. Although the large political equations will change, the EU will always stay the creator of norms that it will continue to export worldwide. The will to anchor Switzerland in the internal market, including institutionally, will not change.

swissinfo : And?

J.R.: We have to get out of this dangerous impasse. Bargaining limited to institutional questions will achieve nothing, given the entrenched positions of the two parties, and risks even calling into question the position of Switzerland in the internal market, from which Switzerland would suffer above all. The debate has to be widened, now. : How?

J.R.: By relaunching without delay the idea of an agreement of association between Switzerland and the EU,  in which both a sectorial and institutional dimension would be integrated. It would be about better regulating the working of the bilateral accords while integrating Switzerland more at the heart of the internal market – some dossiers, such as electricity or market approval for new chemical products are essential for Bern. In addition, as part of a renewal of bilateral relations, a genuine political dialogue could be established.  

swissinfo : But isn’t it that Switzerland itself suggested, stating its wish to follow a global and coordinated approach in its relations with the EU?


J.R.: It is the only reasonable solution in effect, for the EU as well. But in this context it is necessary for Switzerland to demonstrate more flexibility in the institutional domain. It has to “de-mythify” the spectre of “foreign judges” threatening its sovereignty. Sooner or later, it will definitely have to recognise a certain primacy, yet to be defined, of European law. 

Institutional stumbling blocks

In December 2010, the 27 EU members decreed that the bilateral approach governing relations with Switzerland by sector “had manifestly reached its limits”.

Among other things, the EU called for a “dynamic adaption” of the accords to the developments of EU law, a homogenous application of the rules of the internal market (founded on jurisprudence and the European Court of Justice), and an “independent” judiciary control of the application of accords.

Switzerland made proposals in June 2012, vehemently attacked by the European Commission and by the Cypriot presidency of the EU. Their positions will be reflected in the conclusions to be adopted by all 27 EU members before Christmas.

Bern shares the objectives of the EU. But the means it proposes are poorly adjusted according to Brussels. Switzerland wishes to confine the monitoring of the accords to its own institutions (Competition Commission and Federal Court), whose independence is contested by Brussels.

The EU will not slam the door on Switzerland in December, even though, as stated by the  Cypriot presidency its proposals “do not form a basis for negotiations. A broad discussion will have to be opened with Bern, the presidency believes.

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Jean Russotto

Born in Montreux in 1940.

After obtaining a doctorate in law from the Lausanne University, he moved to Belgium in 1972.

Partner in the business law firm Steptoe & Johnson in Brussels, he advises several Swiss multinationals and banks.

Since 1982, he has chaired the Switzerland-EU committee of the Swiss Chamber of Commerce in Belgium.

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