Switzerland-EU: thaw with Brussels in dispute over bilateral agreements

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Switzerland-EU

Explorations with Brussels ended? State Secretary Leu meets with business and trade union bosses

After six rounds of talks in Brussels, it is up to the Federal Council to decide whether the time has come for new negotiations. Heads of trade unions and business associations as well as the cantons will meet with State Secretary Leu in Bern on Thursday.

She is having the next discussion with Swiss association leaders: Livia Leu has identified “landing zones” in Brussels for future EU negotiations.
(Berne, October 14, 2020)

Marcel Bieri / KEYSTONE

At the end of the year, will there be more momentum in the muddled EU dossier? There are increasing signs that the exploratory talks with the EU Commission have progressed so far that the Federal Council could soon decide whether to start new negotiations. A “common understanding of the package” has been developed, said State Secretary Livia Leu during her last visit to Brussels last week. “Landing zones” were discussed for future negotiations. Certain questions would still remain unanswered, such as wage protection. But that is “normal”, after all, one is only in preliminary talks, according to Leu. There is no date for the next exploratory round for the time being.

According to reports, Foreign Minister and Federal President Ignazio Cassis also indicated a certain relaxation in relations with Brussels in talks with the party leaders at the end of last week. Various sources associated with the Federal Council speak independently of a “positive development”. There is now agreement not only on the problems in the relationship between Switzerland and the EU, but also on how solutions can be found.

Exclusive club with a lot of influence on European politics

The fact that the so-called “Sounding Board” met on Thursday in Bern at the invitation of State Secretary and Chief Negotiator Leu fits in with this dynamic. It was only recently launched by the Federal Council. The cantons are represented there, as well as the union leaders Pierre-Yves Maillard and Adrian Wüthrich, as well as the presidents of the employers’ association, Valentin Vogt, the trade association, Fabio Regazzi, and Economiesuisse President Christoph Mäder.

An exclusive club that has a say in European politics. After a first constitutive meeting in October, participants expect concrete information and a first substantive discussion from the meeting on Thursday.

Positive smoke signals are also coming from the EU again: the Swiss could have provided clarity on certain issues, namely the free movement of people. One now understands better where one stands and where there is still a need for discussion, said a spokesman after the meeting with Leu last Friday.

If the EU Commission has its way, the progress made could now be recorded in writing. On the Swiss side, however, the drafting of a joint declaration depends on the approval of the entire Federal Council. It would be the end of a stage that could open the way to a new negotiating mandate. And it would probably also be in the interest of Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis, who would end his presidency with a positive note in the EU dossier.

Because of the Ukraine war: Cassis and von der Leyen held five talks

In fact, the general political climate has brightened. The war in Ukraine has brought Switzerland closer to the EU – and vice versa. Cassis has met EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen five times this year. Namely on the fringes of the Ukraine conferences in Lugano and Berlin, at the WEF in Davos, in New York at the UN General Assembly and at the launch of the “new European community” in Prague.

The bilateral relationship was always an issue in these talks. The fact that Switzerland is gradually moving back into the President’s focus is shown by the fact that her closest EU collaborators are again involved in the talks. It should also not be underestimated that Cassis was able to mend the recently strained relationship with France with his visit to French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris.

The interests of the EU may have shifted somewhat in favor of the federal government, particularly in the energy sector. With the energy crisis, politicians were drastically reminded of the close connection between Switzerland and the European power grid. A regulated basis for the power supply is in mutual interest.

Nevertheless, representatives of both sides warn against exaggerated hopes. In the disputed points, the differences are still large. Or as one person involved puts it: “After the soundings are before the negotiations.”

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