EU-Swiss relations officially back on track after immigration squabble
The EU and Switzerland said on Thursday they had resolved the differences sparked by the Swiss 2014 anti-immigration referendum and now expected to reach an agreement on an institutional framework accord by the end of the year.
"Everything that was blocked can now be negotiated," European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker said in a press conference after talks in Brussels with Swiss president Doris Leuthard.
"We will work intensively to complete the framework agreement before year's end and solve all the controversial questions," Juncker said.
Key trading partners and close political allies, the EU and Switzerland saw their relationship tested after a 2014 Swiss referendum called for immigration restrictions, a move Brussels saw as violating the core EU principle of freedom of movement.
Switzerland is not an EU member state but under bilateral agreements granting it market access, it must comply with EU legislation in many domains, not least on freedom of movement.
The vote left Switzerland's extensive EU trade and other agreements in limbo -- including talks on an overarching "framework accord" that would bring all the other deals together -- as Bern struggled to find a compromise to satisfy anti-immigrant groups at home and maintain access to its biggest market.
After three years of wrangling, last December the Swiss federal parliament approved legislation which dropped the original idea of quotas on EU immigrants in favour of a national preference system in the hiring process -- but only in sectors or regions affected by above average unemployment.
Though the decision was heavily criticized by supporters of the original referendum, Brussels welcomed the move, saying it met most of its concerns.
At the same time, the issue got caught up in Britain's Brexit vote, which was driven at least in part by anti-immigrant sentiment, with talk that Britain could one day seek a Swiss-type deal after it leaves the EU.
With the Brexit talks getting underway, Juncker stressed the importance of "not mixing up the negotiations with Great Britain and the negotiations with Switzerland. These are two completely different procedures."
For her part, Leuthard said she and Juncker had agreed "that the technical talks in all areas will be resumed," citing specifically dispute settlement procedures, which involves the role of the EU's top court, and state aid.
There were still some sticking points but "we want to solve them," she added.
READ MORE: Switzerland's immigration dilemma: what you need to know (Dec 2016)