EU-Swiss influence shows that the UK is right to act alone | Brexit
After seven years of intense negotiations between Switzerland and the European Union for a new trade agreement, Switzerland withdrew, leaving an uncertain future for the two neighboring countries. Does this incident show the limitations of the EU’s negotiation methods?
Switzerland is closely integrated with the EU, and Switzerland is the EU’s fourth largest trading partner. With more than 120 bilateral agreements covering issues from trade to freedom of movement, it may be forgivable for outsiders to think that Switzerland is part of the European Union. Since the European Union has just completed the high-profile—and sometimes bumpy—UK-EU trade agreement after Brexit this year, people have high hopes that negotiations with Switzerland will be smoother. Switzerland’s sudden rejection broke this assumption.
The EU, weakened by Britain’s departure, continues to have ambitions for further expansion. Switzerland seems to be an obvious candidate to join the club because of its proximity, freedom of thought and wealth. However, although the European Union has been exerting political pressure for decades to strengthen European unity, it has not fully convinced the Swiss that they are trying to achieve the best of both worlds-establishing a close economic partnership while maintaining strict political independence.
The Swiss have always been indifferent to the European Union. The closest Switzerland ever to join was the referendum on joining the European Economic Area (EEA) in 1992, which is only one step away from full accession to the European Union. This was rejected by the Swiss people, and the attempt to join the European Union was quickly abandoned.
Since then, the attractiveness of joining has declined. The EU institutions have been hit hard recently. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the introduction of vaccines was slow, and there was a lack of unity on key issues such as immigration policies. Rogue EU members Hungary and Poland openly challenged the EU’s principles, resulting in frequent 27 member states during Council meetings Dispute. In turn, tired EU officials have become more defensive and flexible, recklessly challenging Britain and Switzerland to show their strength through tough trade demands.
The EU’s actions have contributed to Britain’s suspicion of the European economy’s Brexit requirements. Similarly, the European Union has failed to convince the Swiss that more supervision by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and more rights for EU citizens in Switzerland are a fair price to pay for more market access. The Swiss government implements direct democracy and conducts a national referendum on major policies, knowing that any public vote will firmly reject these proposals.
The humiliation suffered by the European Union in 2014, when the Swiss people voted by a narrow margin to end their freedom of movement and demand immigration quotas, which is still fresh in Switzerland’s memory. Switzerland reached freedom of movement with the European Union in 2002 and even abolished passport controls when it joined the Schengen area in 2009. However, when the Swiss government tried to negotiate with the European Union to implement the 2014 referendum decision, it was quickly slapped in the face. Overthrown by the European Union, it threatened to cut access and funding for various educational and scientific programs.
The move forced the Swiss to propose only minor adjustments to support Swiss residents in Switzerland instead of foreign workers in order to obtain unemployment benefits, and required new immigrants to prove that they have integrated into Swiss society-a far cry from the spirit of the referendum decision. The pragmatic Swiss people agreed to accept freedom of movement in another referendum in 2020. Nonetheless, the lingering feeling that the EU seems to be issuing orders means that future cooperation in Switzerland has already drawn a line.
Through recent trade negotiations, the European Union had hoped to reach agreement with Switzerland on an overall partnership framework, which would bring Switzerland in line with other countries with close economic relations with the European Union.
The breakdown of these negotiations means sticking to the status quo — even for the European Commission, which is known for its complexity, it is a bureaucratic nightmare, because the patchwork of bilateral arrangements is difficult to cope with changing Swiss and EU laws.
This put the EU in a strategic dilemma. When a smaller country chooses to leave, its “accept or leave” mentality makes partners reluctant to contact it and weakens the EU’s role as a political force.
The EU’s defensive mentality stems from its policy of “closing the alliance forever”. Policy makers in Brussels have always imagined increasingly centralized political control over the domestic and foreign policies of member states (including defense and taxation). Britain foresaw and resisted this, and its departure will only accelerate this agenda. This obsession with unity also permeates how the EU trades with external countries.
Given Switzerland’s economic dependence on European blocs, the EU sees it as merely delaying the inevitable. If they are not coordinated, their respective laws will diverge, and trade barriers will have formed.
For example, Swiss medical technology companies, which account for 3% of Switzerland’s gross domestic product (GDP), are now facing tariffs due to this disagreement. Therefore, the EU may move inward and behave like a large neighbor with over-control, but this would be a mistake.
On the contrary, the EU should spend some time on self-reflection, during which it should ask itself if the British or Swiss made unreasonable demands. Maybe it will make more friends again. Before that, it made sense for the UK and Switzerland to stay away from EU institutions.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.