Switzerland’s clash with the EU over the free movement of people across Europe will be dealt with as a “Swiss-specific” situation and separate from negotiations on the UK’s exit from the bloc, the president of the European Commission has said.
Jean-Claude Juncker’s comments followed talks in Zurich with the Swiss president, Johann Schneider-Ammann, that made scant progress towards heading off a showdown between Brussels and the Alpine state. Switzerland is not an EU member but has access to its markets via more than 120 bilateral contracts.
Switzerland’s relations with the EU were thrown into confusion by a February 2014 referendum in which Swiss voters backed limits on immigration from EU countries — in direct contradiction with its agreement with the EU on the free movement of people.
The stand-off has clear parallels with the stance taken by the UK, which also wants controls over immigration. But Mr Juncker’s comments suggest he is adamant that Switzerland should not serve as a role model for London. The Brexit vote had been “another element” in fraught discussions with Switzerland, he said, but the eventual outcome would be a “Swiss specific situation”.
Switzerland’s politicians have scrambled to find a way of implementing the February 2014 vote without threatening crucial trading relations with European neighbours.
The discussions have become more complicated since the UK voted on June 23 in favour of leaving the EU. Since then, Brussels has toughened its stance towards Switzerland, fearing it could set a precedent for negotiations with the UK.
Brussels wants Switzerland to agree an “institutional framework” that would involve Swiss laws changing automatically as EU rules evolved and require it to follow the rulings of the European Court of Justice.
Bern is, however, fighting Brussels’ insistence on linking the institutional issues to the problems on the free movement of people — a stance reiterated at Monday’s talks by Mr Schneider-Ammann.
Swiss officials fear that voters would reject in a referendum a package that combined two high highly sensitive issues: immigration and the rule of “foreign judges”.
Mr Schneider-Ammann said Monday’s talks had been “very constructive” and that further meetings had been scheduled. Mr Juncker also sought to strike a positive tone, saying the EU needed Switzerland.
Urging Bern to stand firm has been the ultra-conservative Swiss People’s party, led by veteran nationalist Christoph Blocher. Mr Blocher led the successful 1992 campaign against Swiss membership of the European Economic Area, a way station to EU membership.
In the face of Brussels’ refusal to negotiate over the free movement of people, Swiss politicians may yield on implementing the February 2014 referendum result in literal terms.
Earlier this month a parliamentary commission proposed implementing the February 2014 vote simply by encouraging employers to take on domestic workers, for instance by obliging them to report vacancies at local jobcentres. There would be no limits set without explicit EU approval.
Such an approach is expected to be approved on Wednesday by the parliamentary chamber representing Switzerland’s voters.
But Brussels has signalled it would oppose even a mild interpretation of the 2014 referendum if it discriminated against foreign workers.
The risk for Bern is that tepid efforts to control immigration would be rejected by Swiss voters.
Mr Juncker was speaking in Zürich on the 70th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s “Europe speech” in which he called for the creation of a United States of Europe.
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