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EXPLAINED: Why is Switzerland not part of the European Union?

In the world of multilateral pacts, Switzerland continues to eschew many international alliances. This is why.

EXPLAINED: Why is Switzerland not part of the European Union?
Proudly independent, Switzerland is not expected to join the EU. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

To date, Switzerland is one of only a handful of western European nations that have not joined the European Union.

Bordered on all sides by member states (except for tiny Liechtenstein), Switzerland has often been referred to as a little rich island standing alone in the middle of Europe.

A phrase “Swiss paradox” has also been used to describe the country’s steadfast refusal to join the Union. That’s because Switzerland’s economy relies heavily on exports and its main trading partner is the EU.

Another paradox is that about one-quarter of Switzerland’s population are foreigners — most of them from the EU. 

Blame it on neutrality

“Switzerland  has a very strong sense of independence; joining the EU would impinge on its autonomy”, political scientist Daniel Warner, former deputy to the director of The Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, told The Local in an interview.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why is Switzerland always neutral?

In fact, the concept of sovereignty is so deeply entrenched in the Swiss psyche, that the country voted to join the United Nations only in 2002 — another obvious paradox, as Geneva is home to a number of UN organisations and agencies.

This doesn’t mean that attempts to join the EU haven’t been made.

In 1992, Swiss voters narrowly rejected (by 50.3 percent) the government-backed plan to join what was then the European Economic Area of 12 nations.

The main argument that swayed the voters was that the country’s unique grass-roots democracy would be undermined if political decisions affecting Switzerland would be made in Brussels rather than in Bern.

Nearly a decade later, in 2001, Swiss citizens voted on a popular initiative to open membership negotiations, but nearly 77 percent rejected the proposal.

Small concessions

Realising that some kind of relationship with the EU would be beneficial to the country’s trade-based economy, Switzerland gradually negotiated 120 bilateral agreements with Brussels.

These treaties include market access for Swiss exports, scientific research, student exchanges, police cooperation, as well as belonging to the Schengen Area, which provides for the free and unrestricted movement of people among member states.

Switzerland is also part of another non-EU member group — European Free Trade Association (EFTA) — which gives Switzerland and three other members (Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) access to some trade and economic perks within the association and the EU.

Love-hate relationship

While the bilateral arrangement with the Union has been mutually beneficial, cracks appeared in May 2021, when Switzerland ended framework agreement negotiations with Brussels. These talks were aimed at rejigging five major pacts, and fine-tuning applicable Swiss and EU laws.

However, the Federal Council “concluded that there remain substantial differences between Switzerland and the EU on key aspects,” and ended the talks.

The two sides hit an impasse after the EU refused to budge on demands from Swiss president Guy Parmelin to exclude key issues relating to state aid, wage protections and freedom of movement from the pact.

“The Federal Council nevertheless considers it to be in the shared interest of Switzerland and the EU to safeguard their well-established cooperation and to systematically maintain the agreements already in force,” the government said.

“It therefore wishes to launch a political dialogue with the EU on continued cooperation”, he added.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why did Switzerland call off EU talks and what are the consequences?

Is Switzerland likely to join the EU in the foreseeable future?

Not according to Warner.

“There is only a limited desire for membership”, he explained, mainly due to very strong anti-EU sentiments in the central part of Switzerland — primarily in rural areas — where most  supporters of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) live.

The SVP has staunchly opposed any moves to join the EU.

“Switzerland’s exceptional success in terms of prosperity, peace and social balance can be explained only by the pillars of this state, which are called direct democracy, federalism and armed neutrality. All of this would be threatened by the EU membership agreement. This contract would allow the EU to impose its rules in the areas of free movement of people, agricultural policy, industrial standards, energy supply and even north-south transit routes”, the party claims.

“This mentality is still prevalent”, Warner said.

So in terms of Switzerland joining the EU, “I don’t see it happening”, he added.

Member comments

  1. Britain looks at Switerland as an example for not being in the EU and like Switzerland we see London as a banking hub for the world’s rich, being part of the EU would mean losing a bit sovereignty when it comes to dealing with these bankers, for this reason both Switerland and Britain feel better outside the internal market.

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TRAVEL NEWS

EXPLAINED: Which Schengen area countries have border controls in place and why?

Borders within Europe's Schengen area are meant to be open but several countries have checks in place but are they legal and will they be forced to scrap them? Claudia Delpero explains the history and what's at stake.

EXPLAINED: Which Schengen area countries have border controls in place and why?

The European Court of Justice has recently said that checks introduced by Austria at the borders with Hungary and Slovenia during the refugee crisis of 2015 may not be compatible with EU law.

Austria has broken the rules of the Schengen area, where people can travel freely, by extending temporary controls beyond 6 months without a new “serious threat”.

But Austria is not the only European country having restored internal border checks for more than six months.

Which countries have controls in place and what does the EU Court decision mean for them? 

When can EU countries re-introduce border checks?

The Schengen area, taken from the name of the Luxembourgish town where the convention abolishing EU internal border controls was signed, includes 26 states: the EU countries except for Ireland, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Croatia and Romania, plus Iceland, Norway, Lichtenstein and Switzerland, which are not EU members.

The Schengen Borders Code sets the rules on when border controls are permitted. It says that checks can be temporarily restored where there is a “serious threat to public policy or internal security”, from the organisation of a major sport event to a terrorist attack such as those seen in Paris in November 2015.

However, these checks should be a “last resort” measure, should be limited to the period “strictly necessary” to respond to the threat and not last more than 6 months.

In exceptional circumstances, if the functioning of the entire Schengen area is at risk, EU governments can recommend that one or more countries reintroduce internal border controls for a maximum of two years. The state concerned can then continue to impose checks for another six months if a new threat emerges. 

Which countries keep border checks in place?

Countries reintroducing border controls have to notify the European Commission and other member states providing a reason for their decision. 

Based on the list of notifications, these countries currently have controls in place at least at some of their borders: 

Norway – until 11 November 2022 at ferry connections with Denmark, Germany and Sweden. These measures have been in place since 2015 due to terrorist threats or the arrival of people seeking international protection and have sometimes extended to all borders.

Austria – until November 2022 11th, since 2015, at land borders with Hungary and with Slovenia due to risks related to terrorism and organised crime and “the situation at the external EU borders”. 

Germany – until November 11th 2022, since November 12th 2021, at the land border with Austria “due to the situation at the external EU borders”.

Sweden – until November 11th 2022, since 2017, can concern all borders due to terrorist and public security threats and “shortcomings” at the EU external borders. 

Denmark – until November 11th 2022, since 2016, can concern all internal borders due to terrorist and organised criminality threats or migration.

France – until October 31st 2022 since 2015, due to terrorist threats and other events, including, since 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic.

Estonia – until May 21st 2022, from April 22nd 2022, at the border with Latvia “to facilitate the entry and reception of people arriving from Ukraine”.

Norway, Austria, Germany and France also said they are operating checks on non-EU citizens. 

Can Schengen rules survive?

Despite the exceptional nature of these measures, there have been continuous disruptions to the free movement of people in the Schengen area in the past 15 years. 

Since 2006, there have been 332 notifications of border controls among Schengen countries, with increasing frequency from 2015. In addition, 17 countries unilaterally restored border controls at the start of the pandemic. 

In December 2021, the Commission proposed to reform the system to ensure that border controls remain an exception rather than becoming the norm. 

According to the proposals, countries should consider alternatives to border controls, such as police cooperation and targeted checks in border regions. 

When controls are restored, governments should take measures to limit their impacts on border areas, especially on the almost 1.7 million people who live in a Schengen state but work in another, and on the internal market, especially guaranteeing the transit of “essential” goods. 

Countries could also conclude bilateral agreements among themselves for the readmission of people crossing frontiers irregularly, the Commission suggested. 

If border controls have been in place for 6 months, any notification on their extension should include a risk assessment, and if restrictions are in place for 18 months, the Commission will have to evaluate their necessity. Temporary border controls should not exceed 2 years “unless for very specific circumstances,” the Commission added. 

At a press conference on April 27th, European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said the EU Court ruling about Austria is in line with these proposals.

“What the court says is that member states have to comply with the time limit that is in the current legislation. Of course we can propose another time limit in the legislation… and the court also says that it’s necessary for member states, if they would like to prolong [the border controls] to really do the risk assessment on whether it’s really necessary… and that’s exactly what’s in our proposal on the Schengen Border Code.”

Criticism from organisations representing migrants

It is now for the European Parliament and EU Council to discuss and adopt the new rules.

A group of migration organisations, including Caritas Europe, the Danish Refugee Council, Oxfam International and the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) have raised concerns and called on the EU institutions to modify the Commission proposals.

In particular, they said, the “discretionary nature” of controls in border regions risk to “disproportionately target racialised communities” and “practically legitimise ethnic and racial profiling and expose people to institutional and police abuse.”

Research from the EU Fundamental Rights Agency in 2021, the groups noted, shows that people from an ‘ethnic minority, Muslim, or not heterosexual’ are disproportionately affected by police stops.

The organisations also criticize the definition of people crossing borders irregularly as a threat and a new procedure to “transfer people apprehended… in the vicinity of the border area” to the authorities of the country where it is assumed they came from without any individual assessment. 

The article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK.

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