Swiss urged to keep open bilateral EU ties

Brussels refuses a rethink on labour movement

Swiss federal president Didier Burkhalter arrives  at the EU Headquarters in Brussels. Photograph: Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images

Swiss federal president Didier Burkhalter arrives at the EU Headquarters in Brussels. Photograph: Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images

Mon, Aug 4, 2014, 01:07

Swiss president Didier Burkhalter has said the bilateral relationship with the European Union is the best guarantor of Swiss prosperity and promised an end to the standoff with the bloc by next year.

Six months ago Swiss voters backed an initiative ending freedom of movement for EU citizens in Switzerland. That has obliged Bern to ask Brussels for a renegotiation of that element of bilateral agreements granting quasi-EU status for the non- EU member state.

Mr Burkhalter said on Friday that Switzerland’s future depended on remaining economically open rather than shutting itself off from its neighbours.

“The federal council wishes to pursue this policy of opening up to the world by continuing with and renewing the bilateral path which gives us access to our main market, the European Union. This will safeguard Swiss jobs,” he said.

The Swiss government has promised to go to voters with a new proposal by the end of next year but no one knows what kind of a vote will be held: a renegotiated bilateral deal with the EU or a simple yes-or-no vote on the existing bilateral treaties.

Mr Burkhalter said February’s vote made clear that the “Swiss public want to control immigration more”, but seven previous referenda on closer EU ties showed voters anxious to “continue the bilateral path”.

“Migration matters have to be discussed anew and we have to find a balanced solution. If not we have to rethink freedom of movement,” he said.

Existing arrangements for free movement of labour allow EU citizens work in Switzerland and Swiss citizens take up jobs across the EU. Rather than permit what it views as cherry- picking on labour laws, the EU said last week it would rather annul decade-old treaties with Bern – with drastic consequences for everything from trade to travel.

Industrialist Christoph Blocher, a leading figure in the populist People’s Party (SVP), has insisted Switzerland could survive and thrive without its bilateral deals with the EU. His party, which masterminded February’s referendum, is calling for a return to the system that existed until 2003, with immigration contingents and preferential Swiss labour market access for Swiss citizens.

“There is no basis for firms’ fears of not finding employees,” he wrote in yesterday’s edition of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. “Growth, salaries and prosperity developed better under the previous system and immigration was much lower.”

The SVP argues that the freedom of movement deal – expected to attract 10,000 EU citizens annually to Switzerland – now attracts six times that figure.

The resulting population increase, equivalent to 1 per cent of the population, has driven growth but, the SVP argues, pushed down average earnings.

“For a country like Switzerland it is a road to poverty,” wrote Mr Blocher.

The SVP claims a closure of trade barriers would hurt the EU more than Switzerland.

But the Swiss business community disagrees, warning that ending bilateral ties to the EU would prevent them attracting staff from around the continent, complicate exports to the EU and end access of Swiss firms to the EU-wide tendering process.