In a trip to the EU headquarters, Swiss foreign minister, Ignazio Cassis painted a grim picture of ties between the bloc, and Switzerland. The landlocked country is known for its unique stance on the European Union, enjoying several benefits of the single market, yet remaining as politically neutral as possible in the process.
neutral as possible in the process.
In May 2021, the Swiss government broke off negotiations on an institutional agreement with Brussels.
It is now trying to create a positive atmosphere, counting on the fact that everything will work out.
Swiss historian Bastien Nançoz, who has written a book on the friendship between former French president François Mitterrand and Switzerland said: “With its decision on the institutional agreement, the Federal Council has remained faithful to Switzerland’s traditional European policy of wanting to have its cake and eat it too.”
However, after the financial crisis, Brexit and the current tensions with Poland and Hungary, Brussels is less inclined to give in to Bern’s demands, after all, the Swiss are not members of the EU.
In other words, the EU no longer wants to tolerate “cherry-picking” and the European Commission is acting accordingly towards Switzerland.
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Fabio Wasserfallen, professor of European politics at the University of Bern argues: “If there had been no Brexit, the EU would have turned a blind eye to Switzerland.”
Now it seems the EU would be prepared to accept economic disadvantages in order to ensure compliance with its principles.
However, not all member states support the European Commission’s more intransigent position to the same extent.
For neighbouring countries – Germany, Austria, France and Italy – the stakes are higher than for the other EU states.
They have an interest in regulated relations with Switzerland since their economies and infrastructures (such as the electricity grid) are closely intertwined with those of Switzerland.
And then there are the many people who cross the border into Switzerland on a daily basis.
Higher rates of pay attract thousands of bordering nation workers into the economic hubs of Zurich, Geneva, Lausanne and Bern, who then filter back across borders at evenings and weekends.
More than 340,000 cross-border commuters come to work in Switzerland from European countries, confirming just how lucrative the Swiss employment market is.
The EU-Swiss relationship also has a second factor according to Professor Wasserfallen.
He argues: “After several crises and Brexit, the EU has refined the mandate of the European Commission, now stronger as an executive body.”
The professor adds: “This means that the Commission now has clear instructions on how to proceed, something that Switzerland has not really understood.”
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Switzerland however wishes to retain the current status quo in its open and flexible approach to the EU.
Historian Bastien Nançoz makes a similar assessment: “Switzerland’s traditional strategy of direct contacts and negotiations with Paris and Berlin has not been as successful as hoped with the Institutional Agreement.”
He added: “In recent years, the Franco-German partnership has lost much of its driving force within the EU. The days when France and Germany dictated the pace of European construction are long gone.”
At present, many things are changing in Switzerland’s neighbouring countries: Austrian Chancellor and ‘friend of Switzerland’ Sebastian Kurz has resigned, a new government with no affinity to Switzerland is being formed in Germany, and presidential elections are scheduled for next year in France.
Mr Nançoz notes: “At the moment, European heads of state have better things to do than defend Switzerland… Paris and Berlin will only reflect on whether to resume their partnership after the French presidential elections in April 2022.”
The EU, for its part, is expected to comment on the continuation of its relations with Switzerland in the next few weeks.
Additional reporting by Maria Ortega