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Switzerland inches closer to EU

All eyes are fixed on conclusion of the bilaterals Keystone

The Swiss government has chosen which cabinet ministers will finalise a new set of bilateral accords with the European Union in Brussels on Wednesday.

This content was published on May 17, 2004 - 21:20

The Swiss president, Joseph Deiss, the foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, and the finance minister, Hans-Rudolf Merz, will attend the meeting.

The announcement comes after EU foreign ministers officially approved the accords at a meeting on Monday.

Three of the nine accords negotiated between Switzerland and the EU deal with closer cooperation on security and asylum, the fight against international smuggling and customs fraud, and taxation of EU residents’ savings income in Swiss banks.

The government also wants to open up the labour market to the ten new EU member states.

The agreement follows years of wrangling. But opponents, who have threatened to call a nationwide vote, could still derail the process.

Most prominent among them is the justice minister, Christoph Blocher, who should by rights be going to Brussels with his ministerial colleagues.

The cabinet decided last night that he would not personally have to sign the accords. Blocher is firmly opposed to Switzerland joining the Schengen and Dublin agreements on security and asylum.

Difficult negotiations

Negotiations between Switzerland and Brussels have dragged on for almost two years on the issues of taxation and Swiss membership of the Schengen and Dublin accords.

A final compromise on these issues was only reached last week.

The bilateral treaties will give Bern membership of the Schengen agreement on cross-border crime, but with an opt-out on sharing information about tax evasion, which the Swiss were concerned would threaten banking secrecy.

In return, Switzerland will sign up to the EU’s savings tax directive and levy a withholding tax on EU residents’ savings income in Swiss banks.

Other areas covered by the bilaterals are the environment, education and training, free trade of processed agricultural products, film production and distribution and access to pan-European statistics.

Two other issues – granting access to the Swiss labour market for the ten new EU members and Switzerland’s contribution to a special fund to help the least prosperous EU states – have been added to the package.

Ratification

Even if political agreement is reached on Wednesday, it is by no means the end of the story.

In Switzerland, ratification could still be some way off as the bilateral accords will still have to be approved by parliament.

Meanwhile, the rightwing Swiss People’s Party has already announced it will scrutinise the package, especially the Schengen agreement.

The People’s Party considers the Schengen deal to be a treaty with a foreign state, requiring a nationwide vote.

The centre-right Christian Democrats and the centre-left Social Democrats have for their part called for a vote on the complete set of bilateral accords.

Brussels was anxious to conclude negotiations with Switzerland by the end of June so the taxation of savings directive could come into force on January 1, 2005.

swissinfo, Barbara Speziali in Brussels

Key facts

The nine dossiers which make up the second set of Swiss-EU bilateral accords include:
Closer cooperation on security and asylum (Schengen/Dublin).
The fight against international smuggling and other forms of customs fraud.
Taxation of EU residents’ savings income in Swiss banks.
Education and vocational training programmes.
Membership of the European Environmental Agency.
Media – film production, distribution and training.
Free trade of processed agricultural products, such as chocolate, biscuits and pasta.
Access to pan-European statistics.

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