Open Europe Blog

Swiss President Didier Burkhalter (see picture) has today announced that Swiss voters will be asked to vote on the future of their bilateral relationship with the EU “by the end of 2016 or the beginning of 2017.”

There have been long-running negotiations over the Swiss-EU bilateral deals, with the EU keen on greater supranational oversight, but these talks gained more urgency in the wake of February’s referendum in which the Swiss electorate voted in favour of renegotiating rules on the free movement of persons.

The result stipulated that Switzerland will have to renegotiate its bilateral accord with the EU on free movement within three years or revoke it. This in turn could threaten Switzerland’s other bilateral agreements with the EU.

Last week, the EU told Switzerland that it was not prepared to negotiate quotas on free movement. In other words, in that choice between accommodating Swiss demands or playing hardball that we identified back in February, the EU has definitely opted for the latter approach. Interestingly, the decision not to negotiate was apparently reached by unanimity amongst EU governments, meaning that the UK opposed allowing the Swiss to ‘renegotiate’. This is awkward for David Cameron, he was left with a choice of either giving Better Off Outers fresh ammunition (“see what the Swiss can do outside the EU”) or accusations of denying the Swiss a similar right to which he wants to give Britain. In addition, in that old EU tradition, the Swiss are effectively being asked to ‘vote twice’, with a view to them voting ‘the right way’ the second time around.

In any case, faced with this impasse, the Swiss government’s approach seems to be to put a ‘take it or leave it’ package to the public in the hope they vote to renew the bilateral relationship with the EU, even if this means little or no change to the rules on free movement.

Given that Switzerland is already outside the EU, a rejection of the package by the Swiss electorate could see relations return to square one – what that means is anyone’s guess at this stage.

If David Cameron is re-elected, Switzerland’s ‘renegotiation and referendum’ could coincide or foreshadow the Conservatives’ efforts, which could be interesting.

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