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Swiss State Secretary resigns amidst ‘sham negotiations’ with EU

  • By The Swiss Times
  • 15 May 2023
Switzerland’s top EU negotiator just resigned. What does it mean for the complicated relationship? And what happened that prompted the resignation?
Swiss State Secretary resigns amidst ‘sham negotiations’ with EU
Livia Leu, the top Swiss negotiator with the EU, speaks to press on May 10 in the Bundeshaus in Bern (Keystone SDA).

Switzerland’s State Secretary, Livia Leu, announced her resignation as the nation’s top negotiator with the European Union – a role she has held since 2020.

Leu says she made the decision as a “personal choice,” but a leaked report to local newspaper SonntagsZeitung asserts that Leu is leaving because she sees “no chance of getting relations with the EU back on track without again making the concessions that brought down the institutional framework agreement three years ago.”

Leu’s frustrations apparently hit a fever pitch this year with the EU, according to notes on a meeting from early May between Leu, federal authorities and cantonal officials. The notes from that meeting refer to “sham negotiations” with the EU.

Swiss State Secretary resigns amidst ‘sham negotiations’ with EU
A Swiss flag thrower with Swiss and European flags in Maennlichen, Switzerland (Keystone SDA).
SWITZERLAND AND THE EU: IT’S COMPLICATED

In 1992, Swiss voters rejected membership to the European Economic Area (EEA). From 1992 until about 2020, Bern and Brussels have been able to reach bilateral agreements on a variety of issues harmoniously.

In May 2021, those discussions reached an impasse after the EU refused to bend to Swiss demands for wage protections, state aid, and freedom of movement within the EU. The European bloc made clear that it would prefer a new, overarching agreement to replace bilateral treaties with the Alpine nation. Since discussions stopped in 2021, there have been criticisms from the left to the right as to how close Switzerland should proceed with the EU.

For reference, about 1.4 million of Switzerland’s 8.6 million residents are EU citizens. Moreover, the EU is Switzerland’s biggest trading partner and Switzerland is the EU bloc’s fourth-largest trading partner.

According to a government report released in December 2022, it has been more beneficial for Switzerland to not join the EU during the 30 years since the 1992 vote. That report looked at how the different options would affect the country in terms of foreign policy, inter-country cooperation, and how joining the EEA would give Switzerland access to the EU’s internal market. They concluded “that the bilateral approach remains the best solution for Switzerland.”

“In the current global situation, characterized by multiple crises, secure and stable relations between Switzerland and the EU are becoming more important than ever. They guarantee prosperity and stability for both parties,” according to the report. An EU membership would “go beyond” Switzerland’s financial needs and joining would greatly restrict Switzerland’s political movements, the report found.

“Before Switzerland and the EU can start negotiations, they must find sufficient common ground. Accordingly, the exploratory talks are to be actively continued,” the report concluded.

In 2022, Switzerland proposed new EU talks based on updating old individual treaties with the EU instead of an overarching approach. Officials from the EU responded that they were open to this “as long as problems are resolved everywhere.”

Swiss State Secretary resigns amidst ‘sham negotiations’ with EU
Livia Leu, center, holds a conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov, right, and his delegation, in Bern in 2022 (Keystone SDA).
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

Leu announced in March that the key parameters of their “exploratory discussions” would be ready by the end of June. Meanwhile, EU officials have said they want to end the “exploratory” part of the talks with Switzerland and start negotiations in earnest this summer.

According to Swiss media, the EU is only interested in allowing Switzerland to maintain its special relationship if the Alpine nation will align itself with the EU on issues such as wage protection, state aid and the free movement of citizens across Swiss borders. Another contentious issue between the two entities is deciding which court is used for Swiss-EU legal cases: Switzerland’s or the EU’s.

Whatever has happened this spring has been frustrating enough to Leu for her to put in her resignation. She will leave her post in August and become Switzerland’s ambassador to Germany at her own request.

Swiss President Alain Berset attempted to quell concerns over Leu’s resignation by going on Swiss public radio, SRF, on Saturday.

“It’s not the end of the world,” he said, adding “Institutions are always stronger than the people who embody them for a certain period.”

Leu’s proposed replacements are Rita Adam, Switzerland’s ambassador to the EU, and Alexandre Fasel, the current special Swiss representative for scientific diplomacy in Geneva, according to SonntagsBlick.

This article may be freely shared and re-printed, provided that it prominently links back to the original article.

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