EU-Switzerland fallout shows UK is right to go it alone | Brexit

After seven years of intense negotiations between Switzerland and the European Union to formulate a new trade agreement, the Swiss withdrew, leaving an uncertain future between the two neighbors. Did this episode show the limits of the EU’s approach to negotiations?

Switzerland and the EU are closely integrated, with Switzerland being the EU’s fourth largest trading partner. With over 120 bilateral agreements covering issues ranging from trade to free movement, a foreigner can be forgiven for thinking that Switzerland was part of the EU. As the EU had just completed the high-profile – and at times bumpy – trade deal between the UK and the EU following Brexit this year, hopes were high that talks with Switzerland would go more smoothly. . The sudden rejection of Switzerland shattered this hypothesis.

The EU, weakened by the departure of the United Kingdom, continues to harbor ambitions for expansion. Switzerland seems to be an obvious candidate to join the club, with its narrow geography, liberal philosophies and wealth. Yet despite decades of political pressure from the EU to strengthen European unity, it failed to fully convince the Swiss, who instead sought the best of both worlds – a close economic partnership while remaining strictly independent politically.

The Swiss have always been isolated from the EU. The 1992 referendum on joining the European Economic Area (EEA) was the closest to Switzerland joining, one step away from being a full member of the EU. This was rejected by the Swiss people and attempts to join the EU were quickly abandoned.

The appeal of membership has only waned since. EU institutions have been battered lately, with slow deployment of vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic, a lack of solidarity on crucial issues such as migration policy, rogue members of the EU, Hungary and Poland, openly contesting EU principles, causing frequent clashes between the 27 member countries during their council meetings. In turn, jaded European officials have become more defensive and inflexible, desperately seeking to show their strength by hitting both the UK and Switzerland with strict trade demands.

The EU’s behavior has fueled UK Eurosceptic demands for an economically more flexible Brexit. Similarly, the EU has failed to convince the Swiss that increased scrutiny by the European Court of Justice (ECJ), as well as more rights for EU citizens in Switzerland, were a fair price to pay for better market access. The Swiss government, which practices direct democracy with nationwide referendums for important policies, knew any public vote would strongly reject these proposals.

The humiliation suffered by the EU in 2014, when the Swiss people narrowly voted to end freedom of movement, demanding migration quotas, remains fresh in Swiss memory. Switzerland had accepted freedom of movement with the EU in 2002 and even abolished passport control upon joining the Schengen area in 2009. However, when the Swiss government attempted to negotiate with the EU to respect the referendum decision in 2014, he was quickly slapped. by the EU, which threatened to cut access to and funding for various educational and scientific programs.

This decision forced the Swiss to propose only minor adjustments to favor Swiss residents in Switzerland over foreign workers for unemployment benefits and for new migrants to be required to demonstrate that they have integrated into Swiss society. – very far from the spirit of the referendum decision. . The Swiss people, always pragmatic, agreed to accept freedom of movement in 2020 in another public referendum. Yet the lingering feeling that the EU appears to be leading the fire has meant that a line has been drawn on future Swiss cooperation.

With the latest trade negotiations, the EU had hoped to agree on a comprehensive partnership framework with Switzerland, which would bring Switzerland into line with other countries in close economic orbit with the EU.

Failure of these talks means sticking to the status quo – a bureaucratic nightmare, even for the notorious European Commission, as the patchwork of bilateral agreements struggles to cope with ever-changing Swiss and European laws.

This leaves the EU with a strategic dilemma. Its take it or leave it mentality prevents partners from engaging with it and undermines the EU as a political force when small countries choose to withdraw.

The defensive mentality of the EU stems from its policy of “always close unity”. Brussels policy makers have always fantasized about an increasingly centralized political control over the domestic and foreign policies of the Member States, including defense and taxation. The UK has anticipated and resisted this, and its departure will only accelerate this agenda. This obsession with uniformity also permeates the way the EU approaches trade agreements with outside countries.

The EU will see Switzerland as a simple blockage of the inevitable, given its economic dependence on the European bloc. Without alignment, their respective laws diverge and trade barriers are already forming.

For example, Swiss medical technology companies, which account for 3% of Switzerland’s gross domestic product (GDP), now face tariffs due to this discrepancy. Therefore, the EU will likely lean, behaving like an overly controlling big neighbor, but that would be a mistake.

Instead, the EU should take some time for a period of self-reflection during which it should consider whether it is it, rather than the British or the Swiss, who is making unreasonable demands. Maybe then he would make more friends again. Until then, it makes perfect sense for the UK and Switzerland to stay away from the EU institutions.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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