ANALYSIS: How likely is it that Switzerland will join EU in the next decade?

Switzerland's relationship with the European Union can be described as a 'DIY marriage', with cobbled together agreements and frequent disputes. Clare O'Dea asks where to now for Switzerland and the EU?

This photograph taken on April 23, 2021 shows Switzerland's national flag (L) and te European Union flag at the European Commission building in Brussels. (Photo by François WALSCHAERTS / POOL / AFP)
This photograph taken on April 23, 2021 shows Switzerland's national flag (L) and te European Union flag at the European Commission building in Brussels. (Photo by François WALSCHAERTS / POOL / AFP)

Much ink has been spilled over Switzerland’s relationship with the European Union – including more than 100 bilateral agreements, years of negotiations and acres of commentary.

But will the day ever come when Switzerland ends the agony and joins the bloc? Not in the foreseeable future, according to a recent report commissioned by Federal Council. 

In the report ‘Switzerland 2035’, selected think tanks in Switzerland and abroad gave their assessments on a number of major questions for the future. The report, published in the three main national languages, will serve as a basis for planning legislation.   

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

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing war makes a strong case for close security and economic cooperation in Europe, in which the EU is the key player. The latest EU decision to ban seaborne oil purchases from Russia by the end of 2022, along with Poland and Germany pledging to end pipeline imports, will see 90 per cent of EU Russian oil imports blocked. 

Switzerland traditionally follows EU sanctions after a short delay, which in a way sums up its entire approach to the relationship. The stronger partner decides where to go for dinner and the weaker one stays at home for an extra half an hour before getting their coat and meeting at the same restaurant ‘on their own terms’. 

Another way of describing the Swiss-EU relationship is that it’s like a cohabiting couple where one party doesn’t like the label of marriage but is willing to enter various other formal commitments for practical purposes. Not very romantic. The two parties cobble together a DIY marriage with separate legal agreements written up to cover important things like finances, transport, the mortgage, pensions, custody and who cuts the grass. 

For more than 20 years this patchwork of agreements, known as the Bilateral Way has governed dealings between the two sides. Over time it became clear, to the EU at least, that these bundles of individual agreements, which required renegotiation on a staggered basis, were not the most efficient method to manage such a complex relationship. 

In 2014 both sides entered into negotiations on creating an overarching institutional framework agreement that would allow for built-in Swiss updates to ever-evolving EU laws. That process was rocky but it went well enough until it came to signing on the bottom line in 2019. 

Opposition to the whole concept had steadily grown in Switzerland and negotiations were broken off by the Swiss in May 2021. 

In the current Swiss political climate, joining the EU is more unlikely now than ever, even without the obstacle of Switzerland’s much cherished direct democracy. According to the report, an estimated 12 per cent of popular votes in Switzerland could not take place if Switzerland were an EU member observing EU law. 

READ MORE: Swiss call for ‘calm and creativity’ to fix rift with EU

Less than 20 per cent of the population is in favour of joining the EU anyway and, “a substantial shift in popular opinion in the near future is not expected”. For obvious reasons, the same view prevails in the two Swiss chambers of parliament. 

But we tend to focus too much on potential willingness on the Swiss side. Does the other partner really want to share their highs and lows indefinitely with Switzerland in sickness and in health? A majority of the European Council, the European Parliament would need to be in favour of Swiss membership and it would also have to be ratified by each of the 27 states. 

Still dogged by Brexit woes, the EU might not be too keen on Switzerland waltzing in with its inevitable list of opt-outs. It has other future members to consider, and the debate on what the future expansion of the EU should look like is far from settled. 

One alternative route that rarely gets a mention is the option of Switzerland joining the European Economic Area (EEA), a path that was seemingly cut off forevermore when a referendum in 1992 put an end to imminent membership with 50.3 per cent of the vote. 

The EEA was set up in 1994 for European Free Trade Agreement (EFTA) as a half-way house for countries just like Switzerland who wanted to be close to the EU but not that close. Some of the original members like Austria and Finland used it as a stepping stone to EU membership, while Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland have remained in the half-way house.  

Could this option be resurrected in the Swiss political landscape? The defeat of the 1992 referendum was the making of the Swiss People’s Party strongman Christoph Blocher who fought the appalling vista of EEA membership in his trademark fire and brimstone style. His political and literal descendants would be only too happy to take the opportunity to take up the cause if given the chance again.   

Residence permits: How EU and EFTA citizens can live, work and stay in Switzerland

So even though the EEA could offer Switzerland an effective alternative to the Bilateral Way, giving it a way to take part in the Single Market without major political or institutional change, most political parties are too scared to touch it and scare off EU-shy voters. 

Reshaping the Swiss-EU relationship to make it sustainable is a challenge for both sides. Since negotiations were broken off last year, Switzerland has lost access to some advantages, notably inclusion in the EU’s Horizon science programme. 

When more time passes and other bilateral agreements stall or run out, the pain may be more keenly felt in other sectors. Whatever happens, the two sides will return to the table and they will have to work together, especially as the EU remains by far Switzerland’s most important trading partner. Equally important are the massive human connections between the sides, with some 1.4 million EU citizens living in Switzerland and 430,000 Swiss resident in the EU.   

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How Europe’s population is changing and what the EU is doing about it

The populations of countries across Europe are changing, with some increasing whilst others are falling. Populations are also ageing meaning the EU is having to react to changing demographics.

How Europe's population is changing and what the EU is doing about it

After decades of growth, the population of the European Union decreased over the past two years mostly due to the hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The latest data from the EU statistical office Eurostat show that the EU population was 446.8 million on 1 January 2022, 172,000 fewer than the previous year. On 1 January 2020, the EU had a population of 447.3 million.

This trend is because, in 2020 and 2021 the two years marked by the crippling pandemic, there have been more deaths than births and the negative natural change has been more significant than the positive net migration.

But there are major differences across countries. For example, in numerical terms, Italy is the country where the population has decreased the most, while France has recorded the largest increase.

What is happening and how is the EU reacting?

In which countries is the population growing?

In 2021, there were almost 4.1 million births and 5.3 million deaths in the EU, so the natural change was negative by 1.2 million (more broadly, there were 113,000 more deaths in 2021 than in 2020 and 531,000 more deaths in 2020 than in 2019, while the number of births remained almost the same).

Net migration, the number of people arriving in the EU minus those leaving, was 1.1 million, not enough to compensate.

A population growth, however, was recorded in 17 countries. Nine (Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, France, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands and Sweden) had both a natural increase and positive net migration.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: Five things to know about Germany’s foreign population

In eight EU countries (the Czech Republic, Germany, Estonia, Spain, Lithuania, Austria, Portugal and Finland), the population increased because of positive net migration, while the natural change was negative.

The largest increase in absolute terms was in France (+185,900). The highest natural increase was in Ireland (5.0 per 1,000 persons), while the biggest growth rate relative to the existing population was recorded in Luxembourg, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta (all above 8.0 per 1,000 persons).

In total, 22 EU Member States had positive net migration, with Luxembourg (13.2 per 1 000 persons), Lithuania (12.4) and Portugal (9.6) topping the list.

Births and deaths in the EU from 1961 to 2021 (Eurostat)

Where is the population declining?

On the other hand, 18 EU countries had negative rates of natural change, with deaths outnumbering births in 2021.

Ten of these recorded a population decline. In Bulgaria, Italy, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia population declined due to a negative natural change, while net migration was slightly positive.

In Croatia, Greece, Latvia, Romania and Slovakia, the decrease was both by negative natural change and negative net migration.

READ ALSO: Italian class sizes set to shrink as population falls further

The largest fall in population was reported in Italy, which lost over a quarter of a million (-253,100).

The most significant negative natural change was in Bulgaria (-13.1 per 1,000 persons), Latvia (-9.1), Lithuania (-8.7) and Romania (-8.2). On a proportional basis, Croatia and Bulgaria recorded the biggest population decline (-33.1 per 1,000 persons).

How is the EU responding to demographic change?

From 354.5 million in 1960, the EU population grew to 446.8 million on 1 January 2022, an increase of 92.3 million. If the growth was about 3 million persons per year in the 1960s, it slowed to about 0.7 million per year on average between 2005 and 2022, according to Eurostat.

The natural change was positive until 2011 and turned negative in 2012 when net migration became the key factor for population growth. However, in 2020 and 2021, this no longer compensated for natural change and led to a decline.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: One in four Austrian residents now of foreign origin

Over time, says Eurostat, the negative natural change is expected to continue given the ageing of the population if the fertility rate (total number of children born to each woman) remains low.

This poses questions for the future of the labour market and social security services, such as pensions and healthcare.

The European Commission estimates that by 2070, 30.3 per cent of the EU population will be 65 or over compared to 20.3 per cent in 2019, and 13.2 per cent is projected to be 80 or older compared to 5.8 per cent in 2019.

The number of people needing long-term care is expected to increase from 19.5 million in 2016 to 23.6 million in 2030 and 30.5 million in 2050.

READ ALSO: How foreigners are changing Switzerland

However, demographic change impacts different countries and often regions within the same country differently.

When she took on the Presidency of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen appointed Dubravka Šuica, a Croatian politician, as Commissioner for Democracy and Demography to deal with these changes.

Among measures in the discussion, in January 2021, the Commission launched a debate on Europe’s ageing society, suggesting steps for higher labour market participation, including more equality between women and men and longer working lives.

In April, the Commission proposed measures to make Europe more attractive for foreign workers, including simplifying rules for non-EU nationals who live on a long-term basis in the EU. These will have to be approved by the European Parliament and the EU Council.

In the fourth quarter of this year, the Commission also plans to present a communication on dealing with ‘brain drain’ and mitigate the challenges associated with population decline in regions with low birth rates and high net emigration.

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