Britain’s initiation of divorce proceedings was greeted with sadness and dismay within the bloc, but it presents a unique situation for Switzerland, which must now establish a new relationship with Britain whilst also continuing to negotiate smooth waters with the EU.
No wonder the Swiss government has meetings planned in both Brussels and London in the coming days.
Swiss economic affairs minister Johann Schneider-Ammann visits Brussels on Thursday to meet with the EU commissioner for trade to discuss EU-Swiss bilateral agreements and “relations of the EU and Switzerland with third countries,” said the Swiss government in a statement. He will travel on to London to talk trade on Friday.
Swiss president Doris Leuthard will meet with the president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker in Belgium on April 6th, reported Swiss media on Wednesday.
For Switzerland, the current situation could present a window of opportunity, wrote Swiss media this week.
Relations between the EU and Switzerland are finally back on an even keel after the Swiss government last December decided to prioritize its bilateral agreements with the EU rather than implementing the 2014 anti-immigration initiative to the letter.
EU-Swiss relations are therefore enjoying “a moment of positivity that must be exploited”, said Le Temps.
There is much still to talk about. The government’s December decision has unblocked several EU-Swiss agreements that stalled during three years of wrangling over the anti-immigration initiative, such as the ratification of the Croatia protocol which in turn meant Swiss scientists could once again fully participate in the pan-European Horizon 2020 research project.
But Switzerland and the EU must still work to establish an institutional framework, negotiations for which began in May 2014 and must be concluded before the EU will allow Switzerland any further access to the internal market.
An institutional framework would ensure Switzerland incorporates evolving EU legislation in the areas of the internal market in which it participates, and establishes an efficient dispute-settlement mechanism.
The question now is how those negotiations will be affected by the EU’s preoccupation with the Brexit process.
Speaking to Le Temps last week, the EU ambassador to Switzerland, Michael Matthiessen, said EU-Swiss relations were currently in a “more positive phase” and that now could be a “window of opportunity” for the country.
“In the middle of Brexit, with the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome and a worrying geopolitical situation, it’s maybe a good moment for the EU and Switzerland to draw closer together,” he said.
Brexit’s potential to shake up the way the EU works could also be beneficial to Switzerland, wrote news agencies on Wednesday, particularly if reforms lead to a ‘multi-speed’ Europe allowing countries to participate to a lesser or greater extent.
But Matthiessen warned it was “risky” to think that Switzerland could take advantage of any EU reforms that could come out of the Brexit negotiations.
“Three million European citizens live in Britain, a million Britons live on the continent. We must find a solution but it could be longer and more complicated than we think. And personally I’m not certain that Switzerland can profit from what’s going to happen,” he told Le Temps.
What’s more, Switzerland’s window of opportunity may not last long. When the British public voted for Brexit in June last year, the EU quickly froze negotiations with Switzerland over the anti-immigration initiative, not wanting to give the alpine country any concessions on the free movement of people that it could then be forced to give to Britain.
As the Brexit negotiations gain pace, Switzerland could once again be “relegated to second place”, pointed out news agencies.
And as British Prime Minister Theresa May pursues her so-called ‘hard Brexit’, might the EU also take a harder stance towards Switzerland? Though Switzerland and Britain want different things, the EU will not want to create any precedent for London.
A new relationship with Britain
In an interview with Britain's Financial Times on Monday Swiss finance minister Ueli Maurer praised Britain’s “courage” in leaving the EU and spoke positively about its future outside the EU.
But he also recognized the potential for Britain to become a big business rival to Switzerland if it should decide to lower its corporation taxes.
Certainly Switzerland will want to remain on good terms with Britain, the alpine country’s fifth largest export market and its eighth largest for imports.
In January Schneider-Ammann said he was keen to quickly establish a new trade deal with Britain and that negotiations could take place “in the background and in parallel with the exit discussions” with the EU.
“I would be personally very happy if we were one of the first countries to conclude a free-trade deal with Britain post-Brexit,” he said.
So it's no wonder Schneider-Ammann is hot-footing it to London on Friday for talks with British trade minister Liam Fox about “the future shape of bilateral economic relations after Brexit”, according to the Swiss government's statement.
Neatly named ‘Mind the Gap’ – after the famous London underground announcements – the Swiss government’s strategy aims to “reach a follow-up arrangement as swiftly as possible, particularly regarding trade with the UK,” it said.