Switzerland: Reporter discusses collapse of EU trade talks
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Ex-European Commission official Georg Riekeles wrote Bern’s withdrawal from the long-running wrangling over a new “framework agreement” triggered a “deep crisis in bilateral relations” for Brussels. The Swiss government quit its talks with Brussels over concerns too many concessions had been made, including jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, in order to access the bloc’s single market. Its top politicians said voters would ultimately reject any agreement that hands too much sovereignty over to eurocrats in the Belgian capital.
Mr Riekeles, a key member of the EU’s former Brexit negotiation team, argued the walkout could prompt Switzerland into a “rethink of its relationship with the bloc as fundamental as the United Kingdom’s after the 2016 Brexit referendum”.
Writing for the Project Syndicate website, he said while not a member of the EU, Switzerland’s relationship with Brussels “comes close”.
“Through some 120 bilateral agreements, Switzerland is a member of the border-free Schengen Area, is closely integrated with the EU in areas such as transport, research, and the Erasmus student-exchange program, and enjoys full access to the single market in sectors from finance to pharmaceuticals,” he added.
Controls over state subsidies were one of the main sticking points in the talks over a new Swiss-EU trading relationship.
This is where Mr Riekeles argues the wrangling collided with the Commission’s separate talks over a post-Brexit trade deal with Britain.
Of the Swiss negotiations, he wrote: “The talks had been made difficult because of disagreements over state-aid rules.
“Under the IFA, the EU offered a two-pillar arrangement whereby the EU rules would apply in Switzerland but would be implemented through an autonomous Swiss surveillance mechanism with powers equivalent to the European Commission’s.
“But when the EU negotiated its post-Brexit relationship with the UK, some in Switzerland thought that the UK received a ‘better’ state aid deal.”
Mr Riekeles, however, claimed the “Brexit envy is entirely unjustifiable” because Britain quit the EU’s single market, while Switzerland was to remain within it.
According to the former Brexit negotiator, the EU made significant concessions to entice Switzerland into signing the so-called Institutional Framework Agreement.
He suggested handing even greater wins to encourage Bern back to the table could cause countries to rethink their EU membership.
“The EU could not concede more. Precisely because these tricky issues are not unique to Switzerland, the EU cannot give the Swiss a free pass,” Mr Riekeles wrote.
“Treating all countries alike matters not only for the integrity of the single market, but also for the EU’s political viability. If the EU were to give non-members privileges that even members don’t have, more might head for the exit.
“The EU and Switzerland must find solutions within a common framework of rules, not outside them.”
He claimed that many in Switzerland don’t recognise “their exorbitant privileges vis-a-vis the EU”.
He added: “This cherry-picking cannot continue after Brexit.
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“All in all, the Swiss government has shown little interest in a fair single-market settlement with the EU, and, having broken off talks, now faces some immediate economic consequences.”
Mr Riekeles, now of Brussels-based think-tank the European Policy Centre, said the EU must make “hard choices” over what economic consequences Switzerland must face as a result of its walkout.
He said: “The EU must soon make other hard choices, not least concerning Switzerland’s participation in the bloc’s Horizon Europe research programme.
“Research cooperation is obviously mutually beneficial. But with the Swiss holding up their financial contributions and spurning efforts to find viable institutional solutions, the EU seemingly has little choice but to put its foot down.”
The former eurocrat concluded that the EU’s “wider economic partnerships” are also in play, almost as if Brussels should move to ensure it is not seen as a soft touch.
“The EU-Swiss rupture comes as the UK government also is brazenly confronting the Union by stepping away from key provisions of the Ireland-Northern Ireland protocol and asking the EU to adapt. With Norwegian support for the EEA increasingly unstable, several of the EU’s wider economic partnerships are in play,” Mr Riekeles said.
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