Juncker visit expected to help normalise Swiss-EU relations

Swiss-EU ties are looking slightly rosier since Swiss President Doris Leuthard's meeting with European Commission President in Brussels in April 2017 Keystone/EPA/Olivier Hoslet

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is due in Switzerland on Thursday for a visit expected to help get bilateral ties back on track. These were strained following a Swiss vote in 2014 to re-introduce immigration quotas for European Union citizens. 

This content was published on November 22, 2017 minutes

Observers see the meeting as an important step towards consolidating bilateral ties between Switzerland and the 28 state bloc - its most important trading partner. 

Preferring to stay outside the EU, the Swiss government has concluded more than 120 bilateral agreements with BrusselsExternal link and remains keen to pursue this policy, updating existing accords or forging new deals. 

Since 2008, Switzerland has contributed to the bloc’s “Cohesion FundExternal link” aimed at reducing economic and social disparities within the EU. The ten-year programme, worth CHF1.3 billion ($1.3 billion), is up for renewal. 

Meanwhile, over the past few weeks, Brussels has indicated a willingness to renew a stalled accord on the mutual recognition of agreements, which is crucial for trade and industry. 

Finance and trade 

The EU is reportedly finalising a document granting equivalent status to Swiss stock exchanges – a key demand for the Swiss financial sector. 

Brussels has also given the green light to link up EU and Switzerland carbon markets in the Emissions Trading System (ETS) and to start talks on Swiss membership of the EU Agency for Railways, boosting the safety and interoperability of trains. 

But question marks remain over an overarching agreement to ensure the patchwork of current and future deals on market access are applied more consistently and efficiently. 

A mandate was adopted by the Swiss government in 2013, and by the EU a year later, but negotiations were stalled amid staunch opposition by the Swiss People’s Party against any attempts to forge closer ties with Brussels. 

The conservative right group, which has pushed for the re-introduction of immigration quotas and is frustrated with parliament’s compromise on implementing the immigration curbs, is planning to launch a new initiative to revoke the accord on the free movement of people with Brussels. 

Negotiations about access to each other’s electricityExternal link grid have also made little progress over the past few years. Negotiations began in 2007, but were suspended two years ago over Brussels’s insistence on an institutional framework agreement between Switzerland and the EU.

There is also uncertainty about the future of Switzerland’s participation in the EU student exchange programme, ErasmusExternal link. A row over Swiss access to the EU’s biggest research programme, HorizonExternal link 2020, was nonetheless resolved earlier this year. 

Financial contribution 

Following considerable media speculation about the timing of Juncker’s visit and expected concessions, the EU last Friday finally confirmed his meeting with the Swiss government next Thursday in the Swiss capital, Bern. 

Brussels appears to have finally laid its cards on the table. The Swiss government, meanwhile, appears more cautious. Swiss media recently reported that the seven-member cabinet had taken a decision on how far it was willing to meet EU demands. But dodging persistent journalist questions, the government spokesman refused to confirm or deny speculation that Switzerland would grant another CHF1.3 billion for projects in central and eastern Europe. 

A recent survey found that public support for the bilateral approach to doing business with the EU had fallen over the past 12 months. 

About 60% of respondents now back the policy, down by 21%, according to the GfS Bern research institute. 

Meanwhile, 21% of people who took part in the poll said they were in favour of Switzerland joining the EU, twice as many as in 2016. 

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