Switzerland faces many of the same challenges as Norway in its relations with the European Union, and – like Norway – it is rethinking its approach.
Unlike Norway, Switzerland is not a member of the European Economic Area (EEA); its voters rejected membership in a divisive referendum in 1992. Since then, any suggestion that the country might be better off if its relations with the EU were put on a solid institutional footing has been political poison. Instead, Switzerland has negotiated a number of bilateral agreements that, taken together, give it practically unhindered access to the EU’s internal market.
But in recent years, the EU has become increasingly vocal about the need for precisely the sort of institutional framework that the Swiss have traditionally rejected. The EU wants independent, supranational institutions to scrutinise the interpretation and implementation of the bilateral agreements. “No foreign judges” is one of the most emotive political slogans in Switzerland – but that is precisely what the EU is in effect demanding.
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Another burning issue is the adaptation of bilateral agreements to new EU legislation. The EU wants automatic implementation, while Switzerland insists on something it
calls “autonomous” implementation, which gives the government the right to reject new laws – in theory.
The EU’s increasing insistence on these demands has forced the Swiss government to reassess its options. It has commissioned independent assessments of legal and political scenarios, and one option that has emerged is to
use the existing institutions created for the EEA and for the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), of which Switzerland is a member.
Another option is the launch of some kind of special judicial body on the Swiss side. But both have the drawback of requiring legal acts, which might have to be put to a referendum. In the current climate, the outcome would be in doubt.
It is now up to Didier Burkhalter, Switzerland’s foreign minister since last month, to find a way through the political minefield. A bilateral agreement on energy could serve as a model, in the Swiss analysis. It is one of the areas in which Switzerland appears willing to accept the automatic implementation of new EU law and might agree to the creation of a judicial mechanism. Whether the EU will agree to the piecemeal creation of such mechanisms is unclear.