The Swiss Times - Swiss News in English

Switzerland experienced highs and lows in negotiations with the EU

Relations between Switzerland and the EU and its predecessor organizations have constantly evolved over the past fifty years or so. Initially, Switzerland negotiated as a member of the EFTA association of states until the Swiss people rejected accession to the EEA in 1992, thus initiating the bilateral path.

In the summer of 1972, Federal Councillor Ernst Brugger signed a free trade agreement with the European Economic Community (EEC) - the predecessor of the EU - in Brussels. The negotiations were concluded jointly with Sweden, Austria, Portugal and Iceland - all members of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) at the time.

The agreement represented a decisive step in Switzerland's efforts to participate in the integration of Europe, commented Brugger at the time. Switzerland had refrained from closer ties with the EEC in order to preserve direct democracy, parliamentary powers and a neutral foreign policy.

At the end of 1972, the Swiss electorate approved the agreement by 72.5 percent. It came into force on January 1, 1973. The free trade association exempted over ninety percent of Swiss exports to the EEC from customs duties.

"Black Sunday" leads to bilateral agreements

At the beginning of the 1990s, EFTA and the EU began negotiations on the creation of the European Economic Area (EEA). This mainly comprises the four basic pillars: free movement of goods, persons, services and capital. An agreement was signed in May 1992, which came into force in 1994, but not in Switzerland.

In December 1992, the electorate rejected accession to the EEA with a 50.3 percent "no" vote. The bill also failed due to a majority of the cantons. The opponents were led by the Zurich National Councillor Christoph Blocher and his party, the SVP. Federal Councillor Jean-Pascal Delamuraz spoke of a "black Sunday".

Since then, Switzerland has been negotiating bilaterally and by sector with the EU. In the summer of 1999, both parties signed seven agreements in Luxembourg concerning land and air transport, the free movement of persons, agriculture, research, public procurement and technical barriers to trade.

In May 2000, 67.2 percent of Swiss voters approved the Bilateral Agreements I. Switzerland has thus taken an important step into the 21st century, commented Federal Councillor Joseph Deiss on the result of the vote on Sunday.

Bilaterals II followed four years later. These cover various areas such as education, statistics, the environment and Schengen/Dublin. In June 2005, only the Schengen/Dublin agreements on the free movement of persons and asylum were put to the vote. The electorate voted in favor of these with 54.6 percent.

Institutional agreement fails

In the 2010s and early 2020s, the Federal Council negotiated a framework agreement with the EU. This should have clarified institutional issues and introduced a common mechanism for adopting EU law and settling disputes. The Federal Council broke off negotiations in May 2021. The government cited "substantial differences" as the reason.

The Federal Council and the EU Commission then held exploratory talks. An institutional umbrella was abandoned in order to resume sectoral negotiations. Following a consultation in winter 2023/2024, the Federal Council is now adopting a negotiating mandate. Certain Swiss interest groups are already talking about "Bilaterals III".


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