The Swiss government has taken the stage in a multi-annual process to reach a general partnership agreement with the EU, in a move that could have far-reaching consequences for the economic relations of the two sides.
The Swiss Federal Council said it was breaking off negotiations with Brussels aimed at agreeing an institutional framework with the EU, citing “substantial differences” between the two sides. However, he added that he wanted to keep in place his existing web of offers.
The move led to a rapid rebuke by the European Commission, which prevented an inevitable deterioration of cooperation.
“Without this agreement, this modernization of our relationship will not be possible and our bilateral agreements will inevitably grow old,” the commission said in a statement. For the EU, the agreement was “essential for the conclusion of any future agreements regarding Switzerland’s participation. [in] the single market ”.
The state of EU-Switzerland relations has been a long-standing source of frustration in Brussels, which has invested hundreds of hours in negotiations in years of talks dating back to May 2014.
The relationship, which allows Switzerland a deep integration into the EU’s single market, is different from the status of any other country and dates back to the early 1970s. It is based on around 120 sector-specific agreements, rather than a general agreement such as membership of the European Economic Area.
The desire to revise the agreements it has become more urgent after Brexit because of concerns in the European Union that the UK might take the Swiss model as proof that it should be able to reap the benefits of the single market by remaining outside the formal structures of the EU.
The EU’s goals in the talk to Switzerland it included the creation of a stronger mechanism to resolve disputes.
In a statement Wednesday, Swiss ministers insisted that the country remain firmly engaged in the “bilateral route” in the two-party relationship, calling for a “structured political dialogue to strengthen our cooperation”. Switzerland is the EU’s fourth largest trading partner in goods and the third largest in services, the Swiss government said in a statement.
But there was deep frustration in Brussels that Bern had decided to wipe out years of negotiations.
In recent weeks, included during a visit to Brussels by Guy Parmelin, president of the Swiss Confederation, it had become increasingly clear that Berne had little appetite for ratifying the agreement. In an interview earlier this month, the EU ambassador to Switzerland, Petros Mavromichalis, warned that the dying negotiations were “the chronicle of a predicted death”.
At a press conference Wednesday, Parmelin said the two sides were “starting a new chapter” in their relationship “which we hope will be fruitful.”
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The Swiss side had called for cuts in three areas of the agreement: freedom of movement, social benefits and wages for EU workers in Switzerland, and state aid rules. EU officials said the demands were unacceptable because they were the central areas of any agreement on access to the single market.
The persistent failure of the EU and Switzerland to sign an agreement has already had consequences in recent years: Swiss stock exchanges have lost the rights to serve EU customers and, more recently, authorizations. crucial regulations that allow the sale of medical devices made and verified in Switzerland. in the EU it has been threatened.