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.
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.
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.
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.