EU-Swiss Ties: Is Switzerland At A ‘Dead End’? – Analysis


By Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi

The European Commission decided on Tuesday to offer Switzerland six additional months to agree on a new treaty on future relations with the European Union. Last week, the Swiss Federal Council decided to carry out a national consultation with relevant groups such as political parties, cantons, parliament, and associations concerning the draft deal – under which Swiss rules would automatically adapt to be in line with EU law. In this context, the Swiss government is tasked with designing a strategy for the future of this relationship via both optimism and caution, a relationship which has its deep roots in the cosmopolitan and globalized dynamics between the 28-member bloc and Bern. Put another way, Switzerland pays into the EU budget and extends bilateral treaties to new EU member states, just like full members do, although each extension requires the approval of Swiss voters via a referendum.

In 1989, when European Commission President Jacques Delors proposed establishing a European Economic Area (EEA), he conceded that EEA countries could also participate in shaping the rules. Switzerland went into the negotiations wanting to make a deal that would give it a decision-making role. It didn’t get one. Since then, the EU has changed a great deal. But Switzerland’s position remains the same. In the wake of the 1992 vote, Brussels and Switzerland agreed to a series of agreements on trade, transport, labor, security, and asylum, creating an unwieldy system of more than 120 separate bilateral treaties over the decades.

In a referendum on 5 June 2005, Swiss voters agreed in a 55% majority to join the Schengen Area. The relations between Switzerland and the European Union (EU) are framed by a series of bilateral treaties whereby the Swiss Confederation has adopted various provisions of European Union law in order to participate in the Union’s single market, without having to officially join as a member state. And yet beyond 2005, the scope of the EU-Swiss relationship seems to have undergone a transformation that tests the very dynamics derived from cosmopolitanism-cum-globalization.  Since the early 2000s, the concept of ‘cosmopolitan Europe’ (CE) has become popular among philosophers and sociologists as a ‘post-nationalist’ way to rethink and reform the European Union (EU) in an age of globalization.

Thus, seeking its justification in the European cosmopolitan tradition as an answer to unrestrained nationalism in Europe, CE should make the EU pursue a vigorously cosmopolitan understanding of Europe as well as the world.

At least four reasons make the EU an appropriate test case for cosmopolitan Europe. Firstly, the desired juridical integration, the combination of citizens and state representation in two different assemblies, and wide civil society involvement are all essential to the EU. This is more than a confederation and less than a federal state. Thus, all relevant features of cosmopolitan democracy exist in various ways at the EU level. Secondly, in a horizontal perspective across policy fields, political integration at the EU level is strong compared to the rather fragmented governance arrangements that exist on the global scale. The EU is the only governance arrangement beyond the nation-state which can live up to the systemic expectations of cosmopolitan democracy. Thirdly, even compared to similar institutional arrangements at the fragmented global scale, the democratic performance of the EU is undoubtedly better. Fourthly, there are not many democratic options to be discussed beyond the institutional modes probed at EU level.

Nonetheless, relations between the Swiss government and the EU are governed by an array of bilateral contracts, and the partnership turned sour after Swiss voters in 2014 approved a popular initiative calling for quotas on immigration. That result, which contravenes the EU treaty of free movement, could have resulted in the enacting the so-called ‘guillotine clause’ which would have seen all treaties between Switzerland the EU rendered null and void. Almost two-thirds of Swiss want Switzerland to hammer out a framework agreement with the European Union. Supporters of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party are the only ones who do not support the move – but not uniformly. As a recent poll shows, almost 20% of the party are dissenters.

From the Swiss perspective, the European Union has for years been pushing Switzerland to conclude a framework agreement, with pressure ratcheting up recently. Switzerland on the other hand wants to keep its usual bilateral agreement route. The framework agreement is a key topic in both domestic and foreign policy, and there is a parliamentary election coming up in October 2019.  The EU-proposed deal is aimed at giving Switzerland access to the single market. This is accompanied by a set of EU rules. As a result, Switzerland would be obliged to automatically adapt to EU law in four areas. Previously, new EU laws required fresh negotiations.

And there’s also an important truism: Both Norway and Switzerland keep out of some EU activities, such as the Common Agricultural Policy. But they bring many of their laws into line with EU rules, on the single market in particular. Norway incorporates single market rules as they’re made, while Switzerland accepts EU law from time to time in return for more market access. “Relations between Switzerland and Europe are much more than just a European issue. There is a global dimension, not only in terms of the consequences for Switzerland, but also for the economic as well as domestic and foreign policies,” said OSA director Sarah Mastantuoni.

Here one cannot help seeking guidance from the insight fostered by a German journalist Steffen Klatt who takes a sober look at the state of relations between Brussels and Bern in his new book Blind im Wandel: Ein Nationalstaat in der Sackgasse (“Blind to change: A nation state at a dead end”). Against the old backdrop, Switzerland has reached a dead end, whether the framework agreement is successful or not. Switzerland doesn’t want to belong to the EU, but it wants to take part in the European single market. It has to abide by the rules that apply, but it has no voice in shaping these rules. This problem is now 30 years old, and it doesn’t look like it will be resolved anytime soon.

The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the authors are theirs alone and don’t reflect the official position of or any other institution.

Geopolitical Monitor is an open-source intelligence collection and forecasting service, providing research, analysis and up to date coverage on situations and events that have a substantive impact on political, military and economic affairs.

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