EU freezes Switzerland out of research funds

Switzerland's European research dream may have turned into a nightmare Keystone

The European Union has halted talks to include Switzerland in multi-billion euro research and education schemes in retaliation to last week’s Swiss vote to impose limits on the movement of EU citizens across its borders.

This content was published on February 17, 2014 - 09:16 and agencies

The Swiss government confirmed at the weekend that, as a result of the vote, it would not sign an already agreed deal to grant Croatian job seekers access to Switzerland. The European Commission responded by putting the research and education talks on ice.

Participation in the €94.7 billion (CHF115 billion) Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ projects required a commitment to the free movement of people principle as they involve the transfer of researchers and students between states, the EC said.

“The protocol [with Croatia] has not been signed yet. Given the circumstances and in the absence of a clear political signal to do so, upcoming negotiation rounds have been postponed until Switzerland signs the protocol,” an EC spokesman told Reuters.

Last year, the Swiss parliament had agreed to release CHF4.4 billion ($4.9 billion) towards the Horizon 2020 fund, that started on January 1 and is due to run until the end of 2020. The project pools talent and know-how from across Europe with the aim of boosting a range of research and innovation projects.

The European flagship Human Brain Project, run from Lausanne’s Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL), had already been promised a €1 billion EU grant, mostly covered by Horizon 2020.

It is unclear how the latest decision to cold shoulder Switzerland from funding will affect the long-term future of the project to map the brain, although finances are guaranteed for the next 30 months, according to the EPFL.

Consequences of vote

Erasmus+, which also runs on the same timetable as Horizon 2020, aims to enhance the long running student exchange programme between states. Switzerland had participated in the original exchange scheme for many years.

Switzerland must now stand on the sidelines of both programmes until the current impasse over movement of EU citizens is resolved.

Antonio Loprieno, president of the Rectors' Conference of Swiss Universities, fears the possible impact of the research funding freeze could be threefold.

Foreign students and staff could be put off coming to Switzerland, he told the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) newspaper. And universities could suffer financial hardship as a result, he added.

Swiss universities also risk losing international status and becoming isolated, Loprieno warned. "If our institutions are marginalised, that would, for me, be at least as damaging as financial losses," he told NZZ.

Nervous times

Last week’s ballot box decision gives the Swiss government three years to come up with proposed changes to the bilateral agreement on the free movement of people it signed with the EU in 1999. The initiative, put forward by the rightwing People’s Party, demands curbs on the numbers of immigrants entering Switzerland.

Soon after the vote, the EU announced it would suspend talks on including Switzerland in the proposed liberalised European energy market.

In theory, the EU could also tear up a series of other bilateral agreements already signed with Switzerland, but has so far not given any clear signal whether it will do so.

The Swiss Business Federation, economiesuisse, said it regretted the EU's "hasty" decision to suspend future bilateral negoatiations before the Swiss government had a chance to outline concrete plans after the vote.

"All improvements to [EU] market access are now blocked until further notice," the federation bemoaned. Swiss research insitutions and many companies "would have greatly benefited" from enhanced cooperation in the fields of education and innovation, the lobby group added in a statement.

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