Diplomats from Switzerland and the European Union are assessing their options after a slim majority of Swiss voters last Sunday (9 February) endorsed caps on immigrants from the EU. The vote “creates considerable problems”, a spokesman for Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, said. Laurent Fabius, France’s foreign minister, described the vote as “bad news” for Europe and added ominously: “We will review our relations with Switzerland.”
The most immediate casualty of the ‘Yes’ vote was negotiations on cross-border energy trade; the European Commission announced on Tuesday (11 February) that talks had been suspended and that their continuation would have to be considered in the context of the wider bilateral relationship.
Click Here: Cheap Chiefs Rugby Jersey 2019
Another casualty is expected to be Swiss participation in the EU’s new research and student-exchange programmes for 2014-20, Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+. The two sides are currently negotiating how Swiss researchers and students might participate in the two programmes, as they did in 2007-13. A core condition for Switzerland’s participation is its willingness to expand the existing agreement on freedom of movement with the EU to include Croatia, which joined the EU last July. A deal for Croatia was agreed in July and is now working its way through the Swiss institutions for ratification; following Sunday’s vote the government might see no choice but to suspend this procedure. This, in turn, would trigger the suspension of talks on Switzerland’s participation in Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+.
Swiss diplomats are hoping that things will calm down and that neither side will act rashly. Sunday’s vote put a constitutional amendment in place, with immediate effect, according to which all immigration is to be capped; the government now has three years to enact legislation to implement quotas. According to the amendment, the Swiss government is to “take account of the economy as a whole” in proposing legislation, which would appear to leave it some room for manoeuvre.
Didier Burkhalter, who chairs the federal government this year, said on Tuesday (11 February) that the government would propose in the course of 2014 a draft law on how the quotas should be set.
The most immediate task for the Swiss government is to inform the EU how it intends to take things forward. Yves Rossier, Switzerland’s state secretary for EU affairs, is expected to meet David O’Sullivan, the chief operating officer of the EU’s diplomatic service, in Brussels next Thursday (20 February) to discuss the way ahead. However, while the Swiss might not want to rush things, the impending elections to the European Parliament might reduce any inclination on the part of the European Commission to give Switzerland any leeway in implementing its various sectoral agreements with the EU. The Commission “regrets” the vote and says that it “will examine the implications of this initiative on EU-Swiss relations as a whole”.
A senior EU official expanded, on condition of anonymity, on what the current thinking is. “The vote as such has no immediate impact on our existing architecture [of bilateral agreements],” he said. “Until the time that we have some legislation [in Switzerland] that violates our agreements, the status quo prevails.” In line with this view, the European External Action Service, in charge of relations with non-member Switzerland, recommended that member states’ ambassadors to the EU adopt a negotiating mandate for talks on a framework agreement with Switzerland that would set the rules for all bilateral deals, current or future. However, the ambassadors did not follow this recommendation yesterday (12 February). It is hard to see, however, how these negotiations could make progress as long as a giant question-mark hangs over the entire bilateral relationship.
For the time being, neither side wants to activate a clause in the first package of bilateral agreements, dating to 1999, that would trigger the suspension of all agreements in case any one of them is violated. Both sides benefit from Switzerland’s quasi-complete access to the Union’s single market. Around one million EU citizens live in Switzerland, with a population of eight million, while around 430,000 Swiss nationals live in EU member states.
Gerhard Handke, the managing director of the German association of exporters, called on the European Commission to “find a realistic solution with the Swiss government how to formally implement this referendum with as little damage as possible”. He said that any isolation of Switzerland would be “a disaster” for Switzerland and “unpleasant” for the EU.
Nicola Forster from Forum Aussenpolitik, a Swiss foreign-policy think-tank, said that Sunday’s vote had injected a great deal of uncertainty into Swiss-EU relations. “The vote was about migration, not about relations with the EU, but even with regard to migration, it is impossible to predict the practical, economic implications,” he said. Forster, who is currently a visiting fellow in the Brussels office of German think-tank SWP, said that Switzerland had been “enormously successful in a globalised economy, but because of its size and its openness, it has felt the implications of globalisation more strongly than others”, notably on immigration. Swiss voters, he said, were willing to take the risk of re-negotiating the relationship with the EU, but not the risk of economic isolation. That is the circle the federal government will now have to square.
An initiative proposed by the anti-EU, anti-immigrant Swiss People’s Party (SVP) to re-introduce quotas for foreign citizens gained the backing of 50.3% of the electorate, some 19,500 votes ahead of the ‘No’ camp, last Sunday (9 February). The vote amends the country’s constitution and obliges the government to set quotas for foreign citizens seeking to take up residence in Switzerland; the government now has three years to do so. Switzerland maintains quotas for non-EU foreigners but scrapped those for EU citizens after the two sides struck an agreement in 1999 establishing freedom of movement between them. (The agreement took effect in 2002.)
The Swiss government – in which the SVP is represented – and business leaders had warned that the move would endanger Switzerland’s bilateral ties with the European Union, laid down in a series of sectoral agreements that give Switzerland access to the EU’s single market.