In an interview with Sunday papers including Le Matin Dimanche, Johann Schneider-Ammann said he would insist the EU addresses the Swiss question “before Brussels goes on holiday”.
“[European Commission President] Jean-Claude Juncker told me, at the beginning of the year, that should Brexit occur there would be no more time to deal with Switzerland,” he said. “But we insist that, even now, the Commission and its president listen to us.”
Switzerland has until February 2017 to decide how to implement a popular initiative demanding limits on immigration, which was backed by the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP) and narrowly approved by public vote in 2014.
As with Thursday’s Brexit referendum, the narrow victory was a surprise and revealed a stark country-city divide over immigration fears.
Limiting immigration goes against Switzerland’s bilateral agreement with the EU over the free movement of people, and contradicting it could put the country’s other bilaterals in jeopardy.
Negotiations on the subject were on hold until Britain’s referendum and have now been made more difficult by the UK’s decision to leave the EU, a ‘divorce’ which looks set to occupy Brussels for years.
But finding a deal to keep Switzerland’s bilaterals is essential, said Schneider-Ammann.
“To preserve jobs in Switzerland Swiss companies must have the same conditions as their European competitors. That’s what counts,” he told Le Matin Dimanche.
Now Switzerland must act quickly to ensure it is not overshadowed, a Brussels-based Swiss lawyer Jean Russotto told Le Temps on Saturday
Brexit is not a good enough reason for the EU to keep talks with Switzerland on hold, he said, and Bern should push to find an agreement this summer.
If talks do not restart swiftly, Switzerland “risks hitting a wall and causing a long delay before dialogue with the EU resumes”.
“Clearly for Switzerland, Brexit represents a particularly delicate situation for the future, especially for the survival of our relationship with the EU,” Russotto told Le Temps.
But the Swiss government has a deadline to meet, and should not wait to “pursue a dialogue that has been underway for two years”, he said.
“Switzerland must take the initiative,” he insisted, adding that the current Brexit crisis could “lead to solutions more creative and flexible than the EU or Switzerland have ever dreamed of”.
Many in government, including the Swiss president, must be hoping that’s true.
Speaking to Le Matin Dimanche Schneider-Ammann warned that the idea of a safeguard clause putting fixed limits on immigration to Switzerland now has “no chance” of being accepted by Brussels.
The president backs a more nuanced solution proposed by former secretary of state Michael Ambühl, which suggests limits could be imposed by sectors or regions if immigration causes problems in certain areas.
For example, if there’s a surge in the number of immigrant taxi drivers to Ticino, the government could act to limit immigration in that sector and region, he said.
Failing to find an agreement and imposing a unilateral solution instead “would cause us immediate difficulties with the EU,” he said.
Russotto agreed, telling Le Temps that if Switzerland went ahead with a unilateral approach it would be “a surefire way to provoke confrontation” and lead to Switzerland’s banishment from EU programmes including the Horizon 2020 research project.
But not everyone agrees.
Speaking on his own TV channel Teleblocher, Christoph Blocher, former vice-president of the SVP, said Switzerland should follow its own path and stop trying to seek an agreement with the EU.
Blocher said he hadn’t expected Friday’s shock Brexit outcome and was “annoyed with himself that he hadn’t had faith in the English”.
The leave vote will bring opportunities for Switzerland, he said, if the government knows how to make the most of it.
“We can do better than the EU,” he said.
Switzerland should be pleased that it is no longer the only country to follow its own path, he added.