Switzerland shouldn’t count on its ‘best friends’ for EU help

The meeting of the foreign ministers of the five German-speaking countries Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein in Lugano, southern Switzerland, in April 2021 Keystone / Pablo Gianinazzi

Switzerland has manoeuvred itself into a dead end in its relations with the European Union, partly because it has never altered its strategy. As Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis travels to Brussels to find out where both sides stand, here is an analysis of why his hand has got weaker.

This content was published on November 15, 2021 minutes

Switzerland is known in the EU for cherry-picking. It wants to participate in the internal market but remain as independent as possible politically and legally. In May 2021 the Swiss government broke off negotiations with the EU on a framework agreement. Now it’s trying to improve the mood. It’s counting on everything sorting itself out.

Cassis meeting in Brussels

Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis is meeting Maros Sefcovic, the EU’s new official contact person for Switzerland, in Brussels on Monday. The goal is a joint assessment of the current situation. It is the first meeting between the two.

Cassis will arrive with two gestures of goodwill: the release of the cohesion billion by parliament in autumn and the lifting of the restriction on the free movement of people for Croatia from 2022. In return, Cassis is hoping for a positive sign from the EU.

In addition to the Cassis-Sefcovic meeting, the 40th Switzerland-EU interparliamentary meeting will also take place on Monday. According to a parliamentary statement, the focus will be on the question of Swiss participation in the EU research and education programmes Horizon Europe and Erasmus+.


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“The government stuck with traditional Swiss European policy in its decision on the framework agreement, namely having its cake and eating it,” says Swiss historian Bastien Nançoz, who has written a book about the former French President François Mitterrand’s friendship towards Switzerland.

Bastien Nançoz was awarded the prestigious Jean-Baptiste Duroselle prize for his book "François Mitterrand and Switzerland: a European friendship". Alain Volery

However, after the financial crisis, Brexit and the current tensions with Poland and Hungary, Brussels is less inclined to give in to Bern’s demands, he says.

Put another way, the EU is no longer willing to tolerate cherry-pickers, and the European Commission is taking a firmer approach to Switzerland.

“If it hadn’t been for Brexit, then the EU would have been more inclined to turn a blind eye to Switzerland,” says Fabio Wasserfallen, a professor of European policy at the University of Bern. Now the EU is even willing to accept economic disadvantages as the price for ensuring its principles are maintained, he says.

Overvalued roles of Austria and Germany

Not all EU member states are equally supportive of the EU’s tougher line on Switzerland. There is more at stake for neighbouring Germany, Austria, France and Italy than for other EU member states. These countries have a considerable interest in orderly relations with Switzerland and their economies and infrastructures (electricity network) are closely interconnected with Switzerland’s. In addition, many of their citizens commute to Switzerland to work.

More than 340,000 cross-border workers commute to Switzerland from EU countries Keystone / Pablo Gianinazzi

Austria and Germany in particular want better relations and would be ready to compromise. The German Economics Ministry told SWI in a written response that the government had been intensively engaged in efforts to revive the talks. As is public knowledge, the European Commission has rejected new negotiations.

“Germany and Austria have long been viewed as ‘friends of Switzerland’, but this is overvalued in Switzerland,” Wasserfallen says. A lot of it is just window-dressing without real consequences, he says.

Direct line doesn’t work anymore

According to Wasserfallen, in the past Switzerland relied on the help of its neighbours and used its direct line to Berlin and Paris to get its way in Brussels. Even after the collapse of the framework agreement Switzerland set its hopes on this neighbourly assistance.

Fabio Wasserfallen is a professor of European politics and has just published an article on the framework agreement in the book "A Foreign Policy for Switzerland in the 21st Century". zVg

But this method of playing EU member countries off against Brussels is based on an outdated image of the EU, he says. “Switzerland has failed to realise that the position of the European Commission has strengthened since EU expansion.” For Switzerland, this means “the direct line to Berlin, Rome, Paris or Vienna has lost significance”.

Switzerland has also missed a second development, he says. “After various crises and Brexit, the EU has honed the mandate of the Commission, which has strengthened its executive authority. That means the Commission now has clear new directives, which Switzerland has not properly understood.”

The framework for negotiations for the first round of bilateral agreementsExternal link was more flexible, Wasserfallen says. “My impression was that Switzerland wanted to carry on as before.”

Bastien Nançoz takes a similar view. The traditional Swiss strategy of direct contact and negotiations with Paris and Berlin didn’t work as well as expected with the framework agreement, he says. “The German-French partnership has lost much of its driving force within the EU in recent years. The age of France and Germany dictating the speed of the European project is long gone.”

Things can only get worse

Changes are afoot in Switzerland’s neighbours: in Austria the chancellor and “friend of Switzerland” Sebastian Kurz has resigned, in Germany a new government is being formed with no affinity to Switzerland, and in France there are presidential elections next year.

Former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who publicly supported Switzerland, is no longer in the picture Keystone / Christian Bruna

“European leaders currently have more important things to worry about than helping Switzerland,” Nançoz says. “Paris and Berlin probably won’t start thinking about reviving their partnership until after the French presidential elections in April.”

The EU, however, is due to announce how it will proceed with Switzerland in a few weeks. Switzerland would be well-advised not to count on the help of its “best friends”.

(Translated from German by Catherine Hickley)

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