In an interview published on Sunday by the German-language weekly NZZ am Sonntag, Burkhalter said it was his personal view that a referendum will be held in 2016 on bilateral relations with the EU.
“The decision will be at the end of a long process that has only just begun,” Burkhalter, a member of the centre-right Liberal party from Neuchâtel, told the newspaper.
“Until then there is still a tough obstacle course ahead of us.”
Burkhalter dodged a question about whether he wanted to reverse the February 9th referendum result in which Swiss citizens voted in favor of immigration quotas.
“No, I strive for the best solution for Switzerland, no more and no less,” he said.
The federal government opposed the quotas, which have put at risk Switzerland’s bilateral agreements with the EU.
Brussels has said that Bern cannot pick and choose which agreements it wants.
The EU has indicated that if the free movement of people agreement is not respected by Switzerland — which is not a member of the 28-member bloc— other deals, such as freedom of goods and capital, will be revisited.
Burkhalter noted that the federal government is developing an implementation plan on the immigration issue that will be ready by the summer as a “template” for consultation.
He said this did not prevent the government from holding parallel “exploratory talks” with the EU and member countries of the union.
Swiss voters have already backed bilateral agreements with the EU seven times.
But citizens voted in 1992 against joining the European Economic Area, effectively saying no to membership in the EU.
Last Wednesday, a decision by the Swiss government to treat citizens of Croatia like other citizens of the EU with regard to immigration appeared to ease strained relations between Bern and Brussels.
Croatia joined the EU last year and reached an agreement in principle with Switzerland over freedom of movement between the two countries.
However, after the February 9th vote, Bern said it was unable to sign the agreement and was forced to come up with a temporary measure that allows Croatians to work in Switzerland under a quota system.