During a visit to Switzerland on Thursday (16 March), the EU Commission’s Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič said he wanted to agree on the institutional questions that have haunted relations between Switzerland and the EU for years by the summer of 2024.
After seven years of negotiations, in 2021, the Swiss government unilaterally put on the breaks.
Since early 2022, the two partners have held several rounds of exploratory talks to prepare negotiations for an agreement to secure Switzerland’s partial integration in the single market while ensuring it would adapt its law if relevant single market rules changed.
This week, Šefčovič tried to move things forward by visiting Switzerland and meeting Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis and members of the Swiss Parliament and social partners.
“We have achieved some progress in the form of a better-shared understanding,” Šefčovič told reporters after his meetings. But he also added that “several sensitive points remain open.”
One of the most sensitive points is the European Court of Justice’s (ECJ) role. While the EU wants the ECJ to rule over disputes in market access agreements between the EU and Switzerland concerning the interpretation of single market law, many Swiss political players see this as a loss of sovereignty.
After meeting with Šefčovič, States Councillor Pirmin Bischof, who chairs the foreign policy committee of the Swiss Parliament’s upper house, told reporters that the commissioner had indicated that some areas of the agreement could be permanently exempted from the ECJ’s jurisdiction.
“That’s not insignificant,” Bischof told reporters on Thursday (16 March).
However, when he talked to media two hours later, the Commission vice president did not confirm this reading of events.
“I know there are concerns about the EU court in Switzerland,” he said.
Šefčovič’s diplomatic initiative was a unilateral push by the commissioner as he had not initially been invited by the Swiss government that is internally divided on the issue. Instead, he accepted an invitation to deliver a speech at the University of Fribourg, situated just south of the Swiss capital Bern.
After a dinner between Cassis and Šefčovič, the Swiss foreign affairs department said that the work towards a common understanding had “achieved some progress.”
But the statement also said that “a number of outstanding issues remain, which will require efforts from both sides.”
Agreement by 2024?
While the Swiss government, internally divided regarding EU relations, did not communicate any target for the end of the exploratory talks and the subsequent negotiations, the Commission’s vice-president said he wanted to agree by the summer of 2024.
He argued with the fact that a new college of commissioners would take over in autumn of 2024. “I went through this process four times already, and I can tell you it requires enormous political energy,” he said.
Before negotiations can start, however, the exploratory talks will have to finish, and the Swiss government will have to give Foreign Minister Cassis a new mandate for the negotiations.
The next exploratory talks will take place in Brussels on 20 April.
Musing about the possibility of a quick breakthrough in the talks between the EU and Switzerland at the event at the University of Fribourg on Wednesday, the regional minister for the canton of Fribourg, Jean-François Steiert, said: “One can believe in miracles in a catholic canton like Fribourg.”
[Edited by Alice Taylor]