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EUROPEAN UNION

EXPLAINED: What is Switzerland’s deal with the EU?

The Swiss government it is moving closer to resuming talks with the EU towards a broad cooperation agreement.

EXPLAINED: What is Switzerland's deal with the EU?
Bern will resume its negotiations with Brussels. Image by Ralph from Pixabay

The government, known as the Federal Council, said in a statement that it had concluded exploratory talks with Brussels, and had tasked the foreign ministry with drafting a mandate for proper negotiations by the end of the year.

READ ALSO: Is Switzerland set to reopen talks with EU?

In May 2021, Switzerland called off talks with the European Union, intended to seal a long-delayed cooperation agreement.

The move angered Brussels and strained the relationship between the two sides.

Now, however, Bern and Brussels have decided to reconcile, giving Switzerland and the European Union “cautious sense of optimism for the future,” according to Livia Leu, chief EU negotiator for Bern.

This willingness to reconnect “is a very important step towards the [renewed] negotiations,” she added.

We explore what the deal between Switzerland and the bloc means.

One way to describe Switzerland’s relationship with the EU is this: it doesn’t want to be part of the bloc, but it can’t live without it either.

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

To date, Switzerland is one of only a handful of western European nations that have not joined the European Union, and yet it has strong ties with the bloc. 

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 were made in Brussels rather than in Bern.

That particular argument also held true in 2001, when nearly 77 percent rejected the proposal to open membership negotiations with the EU.

Sometimes, Switzerland’s refusal to join its neighbours smacks of arrogance.

“Switzerland is too rich and too stable to want to join the EU,” said Fabio Wasserfallen, a professor of European politics at the University of Bern.

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

However, despite its long-standing stance of neutrality and sovereignty, which fuels its opposition to joining the Union, Switzerland can’t exist without its European neighbours. And it knows it.

There are several reasons for this dependence.

One is that exports are the backbone of Swiss economy, with the EU and in particular Germany, being Switzerland’s main trading partners.

Switzerland relies on its access to the single market in other ways as well, all of which play a major part in the country’s economic prosperity. For this reason, Bern and Brussels have signed over 100 reciprocal treaties, covering not only trade, but also matters of cross-border security, research and education, agriculture, transport, environment, police cooperation, and a number of other agreements, which are outlined here.

One of the major ones is the Free Movement of Persons Agreement, which allows citizens of EU states to freely work and live in Switzerland, and vice-versa.

Another makes Switzerland part of the borderless Schengen area, making travel though Europe much easier and more convenient for Swiss citizens.

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

What concessions has Switzerland made to get access to EU’s “perks”?

The cooperation between Bern and Brussels sometimes causes discontent on both sides.

In Switzerland, some people, especially right-wing parties such as the SVP and other populist groups like the recently formed Pro Schweiz, argue that the country has no business seeking stronger ties with Europe, at the detriment of its independence.

READ MORE: ‘Pro Schweiz’: What is Switzerland’s new anti-EU organisation and what is its aim?

On the EU’s side as well, some claim that Switzerland is ‘cherry-picking’ — that is, taking advantage of its nearly unlimited access to the single market without actually being part of it, basically taking the good bits and leaving the negative ones behind.

It is true that Switzerland doesn’t have to deal with issues like centralised policies or the necessity to support poorer countries and regions within the EU.

However, according to its agreement with the EU, the country does pay for the benefits it receives from its non-membership.

Take, for instance, the ‘cohesion payments’.

They are basically “entry fees” that Switzerland pays to Brussels for its access to the single market.

According to the government, “the goal of Swiss contributions to selected EU member states is to help reduce economic and social disparities… The Swiss contribution is an investment in Europe’s security, stability and prosperity. By making the contribution, Switzerland is also strengthening and deepening bilateral relations with its partner countries and the EU as a whole.”

This year, for instance, Swiss government handed over 1.1 billion francs to eight EU states as part of the latest “cohesion payment”.

The eight states set to benefit from the money are: Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Malta, Romania and Poland.

READ MORE : What are the ‘cohesion payments’ Switzerland pays to the EU?

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For members

POLITICS

What are the local referendums in Geneva and Zurich that will impact you?

In addition to two federal referendums on pensions, citizens in the cantons of Geneva and Zurich will head to the ballot box on March 3rd to vote on various matters of local importance.

What are the local referendums in Geneva and Zurich that will impact you?

Due to Switzerland’s system of direct democracy, legislative changes and changes to the cantonal and federal constitutions are decided through referendums. 

READ MORE: Direct democracy: How do Switzerland’s referendums actually work?

Let’s look at Geneva and Zurich, two cantons that have a high proportion of foreign residents.

Geneva

The biggest question on the ballot in Geneva on March 3rd relates to the Praille-Acacias-Vernets (PAV) urban development. 

Building law will need to be made to increase the number of condominiums that can be built on the site and restrict ownership to occupying tenants. 

The changes seek to increase apartment ownership in the region. 

A proposed halving of the tax on automobiles, introduced by the conservative Swiss People’s Party, will also be voted upon.

Another question seeks to reduce the number of signatures needed to change the constitution or instigate a referendum – currently at 3 and 2 percent of the population, respectively. They would be reduced to 2 and 1.5  percent if successful. 

These figures are adjusted and voted on yearly; Geneva is the only canton to do this. 

Finally, voters will decide whether ‘Cé qu’è lainô‘, Geneva’s unofficial anthem, will be enshrined in the constitution. With a whopping 62 verses, it recounts how the people of Geneva repulsed a Savoyard invasion in 1602. 

Zurich

Two questions dominate debate among those that the citizens of Zurich will vote on March 3rd. 

Primarily, voters will decide whether two runways at Zürich Airport will be lengthened by 480 and 200 metres, respectively. This is in response to a federal report following a near-miss between two Swissair aircraft in 2011. 

Voters will also vote on an initiative introduced by the Young SVP, the youth wing of the Switzerland’s conservative party. 

If passed, the ‘Anti-Chaoten’ measure would require protestors to obtain a permit for any planned demonstrations and hold them responsible for any costs incurred through property damage or additional required policing. 

READ MORE: Why has Switzerland set dates for referendums up to the year 2042?

A third referendum will decide whether a continuous pedestrian and cycling path will be established around Lake Zurich by 2050 at the cantonal government’s expense, with work done to secure and beautify the lake shore.

Finally, enhanced requirements will be put to the vote for those seeking to be elected to Zurich’s highest cantonal courts. If this constitutional amendment is successful, appointees must reside within the canton, have a law degree, and compulsorily retire at age 68. 

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