March 19, 2018

Switzerland’s European Policy

By H.E. Mr. Roberto Balzaretti, Swiss State Secretary.

Switzerland shares borders with four EU member countries. My country has strong language, cultural and demographic affinitieswith the EU. And the European Union is Switzerland’s most important political and economic partner.

Almost 1.4 million citizens from an EU or an EFTA (European Free Trade Association) country live in Switzerland. That is about 17% of our estimated population of 8.4 million. In addition, about 320,000 people from neighbouring EU countries commute to Switzerland every day.

Our country is a linchpin of the North-South communication and transportation axis. As a matter of fact, with its infrastructure projects, Switzerland has historically facilitated and enhanced the transport connections between Northern and Southern Europe. The most recent example is the Gotthard railway tunnel through the Alps, which was opened for traffic in December last year. It is 57 km long, which makes it the longest tunnel in the world.

Our close relationship is also reflected by our trade and economic relations. Switzerland is the EU‘s third largest trading partner (after the US and China). The volume of trade in goods between Switzerland and the EU amounts to more than double of the EU’s total trade with Japan. 72% of Swiss imports stem from the EU and 55% of our exports go to the European Union.

Essentially, our vision regarding the EU is twofold. Firstly, we aim to keep our relations with the European Union stable and predictable. And secondly, we have a strong interest in a successful and thriving EU.

Our relations are based on a series of bilateral sectoral agreements which allow for a strong cooperation in different fields of interest. These agreements form the backbone of what we call “bilateral path”.

Bilateral agreements with the EU include in particular trade in goods, the free movement of persons, which enables workers and investors to come to Switzerland, as well as the access to public procurement markets.In addition, the air and land transport agreements between Switzerland and the EU provide excellent connections for the transport of both goods and people. Another important element is Switzerland’s association to the Schengen area. This allows for smooth cross-border travel and increased police cooperation.

Additional benefits of our close relations with the EU include cooperation in areas such as research, education, environment and culture.

This bilateral (or sectoral) approach enables Switzerland and the EU to shape tailor-made, beneficial policies in areas of mutual interest. Itis a real success story for both sides.

Switzerland is the country outside the EU which has concluded the largest amount of agreements with Brussels. Our bilateral path enjoys large support in Switzerland and was endorsed by the Swiss electorate on various occasions. The bilateral agreements with the EU have a tangible impact: they enable Switzerland to put to good use its economic strengths. They contribute to increasing the competitiveness of the Swiss economy and the attractiveness of our country as an investment destination.

Switzerland and the EU are striving to set out an institutional mechanism ensuring that the bilateral agreements on market access are applied even more consistently and efficiently in the future. It is indeed in both sides’ interests to find a way to allow for a rapid adjustment to developments in the EU law and the efficient settlement of disputes. This would provide for legal homogeneity and legal certainty. Negotiations on this institutional framework started in May 2014 and are well under way.

The regulation of the institutional issues would consolidate existing bilateral agreements in the area of reciprocal market access and build the basis for the further development of our economic relations. In this endeavour, the challenge lies in finding an appropriate balance between a mutual non-discriminatory market access and respect of sovereignty.

Another current challenge for Swiss European policy lies in the decision of the United Kingdom’s (UK) electorate to leave the EU. Relations between Switzerland and the UK are close, comprehensive and multifaceted. The UK is Switzerland’s fifth most important export market, whereas Switzerland is UK’s biggest export market with whom the EU has a free-trade agreement. Since relations between Switzerland and the UK are to a large extent based on the bilateral agreements between Switzerland and the EU, there is a common interest to avoid gaps in market access, should such agreements no longer be applicable to the UK.

The Swiss government has set a strategy called “Mind the gap”, which aims at guaranteeing the existing rights and obligations between Switzerland and the UK for the period after the UK exit from the EU and to extend relations in areas of common interest. Therefore, Switzerland and the UK are exploring a new legal framework for the period after Brexit.

Stable, predictable and close relations with the EU remain a priority for Switzerland. The Swiss government is determined to ensure the continuation and consolidation of the bilateral path in the long term. Our relations with the EU are a long-term, solid venture. We will remain one of the EU’s closest and reliable partners. It is this mix of enhanced cooperation with the EU on the one hand, and independent national policies on the other that has allowed Switzerland to be one of the world’s most innovative and competitive countries.


Picture by the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.

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