The European Union’s upcoming enlargement is likely to put further distance between Bern and Brussels, according to the Swiss foreign minister.
At a press conference on Monday, Micheline Calmy-Rey said that recent disagreements with Germany had underscored the impact of staying outside the bloc.
“As the EU welcomes ten new members in May, its centre of gravity will inevitably shift towards the east,” Calmy-Rey told reporters in Geneva.
“And as a result, problems of national importance for Switzerland will take on only regional or local significance for our neighbours,” she added.
Relations with Germany
According to Calmy-Rey, this imbalance of political priorities is already reflected in relations between Switzerland and Germany.
“Most of our problems with Berlin concern southern Germany,” she said. “For example, the airspace issue involving Zurich airport or German farmland being used by the Swiss.”
“Switzerland chose not be a member of the European Union and as a result, we’re being treated as an outsider,” she added.
Earlier this month Germany introduced stringent border checks, causing major tailbacks and much frustration on the Swiss side of the frontier.
The Germans said they were merely applying the letter of the Schengen accord on cross-border crime between EU and non-EU nations.
Berlin has also introduced new rules which make it difficult for Swiss and other non-EU banks to access its financial markets.
According to the foreign ministry, Switzerland’s self-imposed exclusion from the EU is likely to continue causing problems for the country.
Bern and Brussels are currently at an impasse over a second set of bilateral treaties, including the taxation of EU residents’ savings income in Switzerland and accession to the Schengen accord.
“For the moment, we have no choice but to react as quickly as possible to decisions taken by the EU,” said Calmy-Rey.
“The current round of bilateral negotiations with Brussels won’t solve all of our problems,” she said. “And we will only become more vulnerable as the EU grows to 25 members.”
Further proof of Switzerland’s vulnerability came last month when the EU suddenly announced plans to levy a tax on re-exports from March 1.
Bern managed to earn a three-month postponement after protesting vigorously to Brussels.
But Calmy-Rey pointed out that Switzerland does have some economic leverage when it comes to bargaining with the EU.
“After the United States, Switzerland is the EU’s second-largest trading partner,” said Calmy-Rey. “What’s more, some 800,000 Europeans work in Switzerland.”
And in terms of counter-terrorism, Calmy-Rey said that it was in the EU’s interest to ensure that Switzerland did not become a weak link in Europe’s chain of defence.
She also pointed to Switzerland’s contribution to the construction of transalpine rail links, to the tune of SFr15 billion ($12 billion), as a sign of the country’s commitment to Europe.
swissinfo, Frédéric Burnand in Geneva
Bern and Brussels are currently negotiating a set of nine bilateral treaties.
Three documents remain on the table: taxation of savings; cross-border fraud; and Swiss participation in the Schengen and Dublin accords (covering cross-border crime and asylum).
Other contentious issues between Bern and Brussels include the EU's plans to levy a tax on Swiss re-exports from June 1.
Switzerland has an application for EU membership filed in Brussels, but the dossier is on ice for the current legislative period, which runs until 2007.
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