Swiss keep options open on EU membership

Diana Wallis heads the EU parliamentary body for relations with Switzerland. zvg

European Union parliamentarian, Diana Wallis, tells swissinfo that Bern must keep open the possibility of Switzerland joining the EU.

This content was published on October 26, 2005

swissinfo spoke to her just before the Swiss government decided to leave the country's membership application on ice in Brussels.

The cabinet said on Wednesday that EU membership remained a "long-term option" for Switzerland.

Speaking after the cabinet meeting, Economics Minister Joseph Deiss said there was no reason to withdraw the application, which has been frozen in Brussels since 1992. He added that doing so would require that the decision be justified at home and abroad.

The cabinet will now recommend that parliament rejects motions demanding the application's withdrawal.

As an alternative to membership, Bern has taken the "bilateral" route, concluding 16 agreements with Brussels in two separate rounds of negotiations.

Voters twice this year approved closer ties with the EU, accepting the Schengen and Dublin accords on closer security cooperation in June, and extending an existing labour accord to include the ten new EU member states in September.

Opponents of EU membership said these votes had demonstrated that the electorate was clearly in favour of the bilateral approach and that the application for membership should therefore be withdrawn.

The government has promised to produce a report outlining Switzerland's options with regard to Europe by summer of next year.

swissinfo: You know Switzerland very well. Do you think that the country will join the EU in the next few years?

Diana Wallis: It certainly won't become a member tomorrow. After two successful Europe votes this year, Switzerland will first have to get used to the second round of bilateral agreements.

But it should also take time to think about whether EU membership could be an option in the future.

swissinfo: What would be the advantages for Switzerland of EU membership?

D.W.: Switzerland lacks members of the European parliament, has no EU commissioner and is not in the Council of Ministers.

The Swiss system of direct democracy is of course an example for us all, but [because it's not an EU member] Switzerland can't participate in any further changes affecting Europe.

swissinfo: Wouldn't the system of direct democracy make Switzerland a difficult EU member, because the population would have to vote on every EU directive?

D.W.: The possibility of voting on every EU directive would, of course, be a little bit restricted. This is regrettable, but part of the logic of joining: one gives up a little bit of sovereignty and gets in return the opportunity to have a say in the EU.

In any case, most EU members are difficult in some way. Look at my own country - Britain has kept its own currency and unlike Switzerland, is not even part of Schengen.

swissinfo: Why should Switzerland consider joining, when there is no majority in favour in the government, parliament or among the people?

D.W.: Switzerland can and should have this debate in a relaxed way, without time pressure. Perhaps views may change after people see how the bilateral agreements work in reality.

swissinfo: Many only expect a report from the administration outlining the advantages and disadvantages of EU membership. Is this worthwhile?

D.W.: This is a very worthwhile practice when the work is done without any prejudice and when the report sets out in a matter-of-fact way the advantages and disadvantages of joining.

Needless to say, the report shouldn't appear just before the next elections, this would make a factual debate more difficult.

swissinfo: How would the EU react if Switzerland withdrew its application to join?

D.W.: It is of course up to Switzerland to decide whether it should withdraw its application. On the other hand, the country would have to accept that the EU negotiated the first and second sets of bilateral agreements with a view to a possible Swiss EU membership.

Without this prospect - however vague and remote a possibility this may be - the EU could lose interest in further developing its relationship with Switzerland.

swissinfo: You even said after the September vote that you thought the bilateral way had run its course.

D.W.: That is my personal view. I think that the bilateral accords are essentially too complicated to develop this type of relationship any further.

swissinfo-interview: Simon Thönen in Brussels

Key facts

Switzerland applied to join the EU in May 1992.
Brussels put the application on ice in the same year after the Swiss population voted against joining the European Economic Area (EEA).

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In brief

Diana Wallis is member of the European Parliament for the British centre-left Liberal Democrat party.

She is president of the European Parliament Delegation to Iceland, Norway and Switzerland.

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