Brussels was reportedly working to tire Switzerland to European Union law when the country decided to walk away from their trade deal negotiation. Bern formally quit the negotiations to convert future relations with the bloc into a single overarching “framework agreement”.
The back-and-forth has dominated their increasingly fractious relationship since 2014. Critics of the potential agreement say the pact would have given eurocrats the ability to meddle in the affairs of a sovereign nation.
Philip Erzinger, head of Kompass Europe, an anti-framework campaign group, said, “You’d never sign a contract like that in business. It was one-sided. It required us to take on EU law without any mechanism for saying No.”
“It would have been a direct interference in our system of direct democracy and cantons in Switzerland,” he added.
Martin Janssen, chief executive of financial software firm Ecofin, insisted that Switzerland has to be allowed to be different, something the framework agreement doesn’t provide for.
The move by Switzerland to walk out of the talks has been hailed as a hugely significant moment by opponents to the process. It has been compared to the UK’s historic referendum on its EU membership – dubbed Swexit.
Switzerland has never been an EU member and rejected joining the European Economic Area in a referendum in 1992. But it has enjoyed almost full access to the EU’s single market through a series of 120 bilateral agreements and is a member of the bloc’s Schengen passport-free travel area.
The country has also been largely aligned with Brussels on a vast array of economic and legal matters. Brussels claimed the framework agreement would have upgraded and enhanced their relationship.
Eurocrats have refused to do the same with the bilateral pacts, which will now left to eventually disintegrate as EU officials look to pressure Switzerland to return to the negotiating table.
Bern’s access to the bloc’s markets will slowly erode as a result. Just this week an agreement on recognising standards medical devices lapsed. The decision to quit the talks was a massive victory for Switzerland’s right-wing Swiss People’s Party, which has campaigned tirelessly to prevent powers from being handed to Brussels.
But others claim the move will not cause a similar political earthquake to the Brexit result in June 2016. Hugo Roppel, chief executive of Geneva Logistics Group, said, “To be honest, I do not have a sense of direct consequences for our businesses.
“The most rational thing would be to say that we need Europe and that Europe needs Switzerland. I think it is necessary for everybody to take a moment to calm down and then negotiations can perhaps begin again.”
But top pollster Lukas Golder, of GFS Bern, said the Swiss people believed their government had made too many concessions in the negotiations with Brussels. He said there was broad support for close ties with the EU but a feeling that too much was being given away.
The expert added, “People believe Switzerland was too weak in its position versus the EU. But there are also probably too high expectations about the alternatives.”
The country’s biggest newspaper offered support for Swiss federal council’s move to quit the talks.
In an editorial, the Tages-Anzeiger broadsheet wrote, “Despite all the sympathy one might have for overcoming the narrow national borders that have led to many wars in Europe, it’s not necessary to sign everything that Brussels wants.”