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International Relations

Back to square one for Switzerland and the EU

In a referendum last week, Swiss voters chose to limit immigration from EU countries. Now, the EU has begun issuing its response - and some in Switzerland fear it could take on dramatic proportions.

Many in Switzerland hope for a quick end to the clouds that have settled over their country after a contentious referendum on limiting immigration. They perhaps think recent threats and actions heading their way from Brussels are just for show. Over the weekend, a spokesman for the European Commission said that negotiations on a proposed research collaboration will be put on ice and that the student exchange program Erasmus Plus will continue for now without Switzerland.

"I'm afraid the people here aren't fully comprehending what that means," said Swiss parliamentarian Kathy Riklin, adding, "But painful consequences are going to emerge."

As president of the EU-EFTA delegation in the Swiss parliament, Riklin has long been working on her country's relations with the EU. Even the preliminary announcements of an end to research and student programs hit the country in a sensitive spot, she says.

A Swiss sign that supports limiting immigration
(c) picture-alliance/Dpa

"Immoderation causes harm" reads one Swiss sign in favor of limiting immigration

Back to isolation

For a decade, Switzerland has taken part in the European Union's multi-billion-euro research program Horizon. For the period 2014 to 2020, the EU has allotted 80 billion euros for the program, which supports joint research projects between companies and universities from various EU countries. But Kathy Riklin says the money isn't the decisive factor; instead, she sees the key as being scholarly exchanges in international networks.

"Ever since we've been able to participate here, we've made enormous progress," she said, adding that she fears universities will fall back into isolation. "For Switzerland, the Horizon program was a recipe for success. If it is discontinued, that's a big disappointment and a big loss for Switzerland as a scientific center."

The same might be said of the student exchange program Erasmus, which each year allows around 3,000 Swiss students and professors to spend a semester or more at a European university. Both programs have now been closed to Swiss citizens, and the EU will no longer accept applications from Switzerland.

Swiss politician Kathy Riklin
(c) imago

Kathy Riklin says the Swiss may want to reflect further on their vote

The EU's silent member

But excluding Switzerland from the EU programs Horizon and Erasmus may well be just the beginning of the country's slow removal from the European single market. Although the Swiss would like to profit heavily from European cooperation even though they clearly do not favor EU membership, the Swiss government has repeatedly reached new and closer bilateral agreements with Brussels over the last five decades.

Around 120 contracts between the two set the rules on everything, all the way down to the question of how many of the tiny wheels in a watch have to be produced in Switzerland in order for it to be sold as a Swiss timepiece. When the EU agrees on new rules and guidelines, Switzerland generally is forced to adopt them into Swiss law; otherwise, its products will not correspond to EU standards and cannot be exported to the bloc.

In essence, Switzerland has long been a silent member of the EU, says Christian Democrat, Andreas Schwab, a member of the European Parliament: "On the one hand, Switzerland does not have a say in the measures that it has to implement, but, on the other, there are aspects of cross-border cooperation where the country only participates somewhat."

But even when it comes to such aspects, Schwab adds, Swiss leaders are working to bring the country closer to the EU because it helps their own economy.

Much at stake

Riklin says Switzerland undeniably profits from closer ties to the EU. "Switzerland's economic boom only really came with freedom of movement in Europe," she noted.

A border crossing station between Germany and Switzerland
(C) picture-alliance/dpa

Border controls to return to Swiss-European borders?

But a fear of too many foreigners won out, Riklin says, adding that she thinks most people in Switzerland cannot imagine that the EU would now put everything in question due to her country's recent referendum. She hopes they're right: "I think that a lot of the contracts are also to the advantage of the European Union."

Not surprisingly, however, the weight is not evenly divided on this point. Two thirds of Swiss exports go to the EU, while Switzerland accounts for less than seven percent of EU exports.

Andreas Schwab also sees the EU's credibility at stake in the affair, saying there should be no negotiations given that the EU said right from the start that its agreements with Switzerland needed to be seen as a package. If one contract within the package gets overturned, then all contracts are to be voided.

Back to square one

"That would be a severe blow to the Swiss economy," warns Riklin - so severe that she cannot imagine how it could come to such an outcome. If the European Union remains unyielding, she says Swiss citizens will have to rethink their vote. It wouldn't be the first time that a very important question went up for vote a second or even a third time.

Women's right to vote wasn't approved during the first attempt to do so, Riklin says, adding, "Democracy is in motion, and people can grow cleverer."

The latest opinion polls reveal that 74 percent of the Swiss want to see their country's bilateral contracts with the EU saved at all costs.

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