The Swiss government said this week that it was optimistic about reaching an agreement soon with the European Union on a second set of bilateral treaties.
But experts say that after “Bilaterals II” Switzerland will struggle to advance its interests with a Union preoccupied with integrating ten new members after May 1.
The Swiss cabinet on Thursday signalled that a deal was not far off, after nearly three years of difficult negotiations on agreements ranging from savings taxation to judicial assistance.
The foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, said talks on a second set of bilateral accords “could be completed in the not too distant future”.
René Schwok, a professor of European politics at Geneva University, agrees that a deal appears to be close.
“There are good possibilities that we will reach an agreement by the end of this month,” he told swissinfo.
But experts warn that the government’s policy of negotiating bilateral deals with Brussels, as an alternative to membership, has likely run its course.
“The main issue is what would come after the second set of bilateral accords,” Georg Kreis, director of the EuropaInstitut at the university of Basel, told swissinfo.
“One option would be for a third round of agreements, which would be hard for Switzerland to negotiate on its own terms.
“Other possibilities would be to leave things as they are or to apply for full membership of the EU.”
But Kreis believes the government is unlikely to make any progress in seeking EU membership before the end of the current legislature in 2007.
The issue of membership has been firmly on the backburner since 2001, when voters rejected the idea of even starting talks about joining.
Last October the rightwing Swiss People’s Party – which like most Swiss is staunchly eurosceptic – became the largest party in parliament and in December won an extra seat in the seven-strong government.
The government chose the bilaterals route after a ballot in 1992, when voters threw out plans to join the European Economic Area, which would have given Switzerland the chance to participate in the EU’s internal market.
A first set of accords came into force in June 2002, and while six of the agreements are likely to be extended automatically to the ten new EU member states, the seventh – governing the free movement of people – will have to go to a second nationwide vote.
Kreis believes that even if a deal on the second set of bilaterals is not signed by May 1, when the EU expands to 25 members, an agreement will be reached.
“It would have been ideal had the… bilaterals already been agreed and signed with the 15 existing members,” he said.
“But when there are differences of opinion neither side wants to put itself under time pressure because then one side or the other would have to pay with concessions,” he added.
Political analyst Karin Gilland Lutz believes Switzerland will have a tough time striking new deals with Brussels after Bilaterals II.
“A lot will hinge on how well Swiss negotiators realise that Switzerland needs the EU much more than the other way around,” she told swissinfo.
“It’ll be harder for Switzerland to achieve its aims with an enlarged EU because the EU itself will find it more difficult to reach internal agreement on an issue.
“This means there will probably be less interest from Brussels in spending time and energy in reaching agreements with non-members, including Switzerland.”
swissinfo, Jonathan Summerton
On May 1, ten countries - Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Cyprus and Malta - will join the European Union.
A first set of bilateral agreements between Switzerland and the EU came into force on June 1, 2002.
Negotiations over a second set of bilateral agreements, including the taxation of EU residents’ savings in Switzerland and accession to the Schengen accord are currently deadlocked.
In 1992 the Swiss electorate threw out a proposal to join the European Economic Area.
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