Switzerland delays decision on EU ties with public consultation

Switzerland on Friday shrugged off a deadline set by the European Union to agree on future ties, despite Brussels taking a hard line on economic links unless Bern agrees to key demands.

Switzerland delays decision on EU ties with public consultation

The EU wanted Switzerland to approve a broad deal that would simplify relations, currently defined by a messy set of some 120 bilateral accords, and said it expected an answer Friday to the final terms on the table. 

“Significant progress has been made” on reaching a deal, Swiss President Alain Berset told reporters.    

Read also: What you need to know about the new draft Swiss–EU deal

But he added that “there are still differences on very important issues” and the Alpine nation's government needed time for broader consultations. 

Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis said those consultations may take place in the spring. 

The draft agreement on the table covers an array of issues, including the thorny question of free movement of people.

EU pressure

Seeking leverage over Bern, the EU has threatened to not renew the so-called 'equivalence' status of the Swiss stock exchange unless the broader deal was agreed. 

Equivalence allows EU-based trading platforms to buy and sell Swiss stocks. If Brussels takes that away, the Swiss exchange faces a huge hit from trade volume losses. 

The European Commission said it “respects the will of the Federal Council to consult all the parties concerned” but called for “speedy” negotiations.

For Switzerland – and its steadily robust economy – the consequences of dismissing the EU deadline are not yet clear. 

Switzerland last week activated a plan to protect its stock exchange should the EU revoke equivalence guidelines. 

EU-based platforms that want to trade Swiss stocks like Nestle are now being forced to apply for registration with Switzerland's authorities. 

The idea is to block platforms from trading Swiss stocks within the EU and thereby force traffic back to the Swiss exchange.

The Bern-Brussels relationship suffered a heavy blow in 2014 when Swiss voters backed a proposal calling for the re-introduction of migrant quotas, which could have limited the number of EU citizens working in Switzerland.

The Swiss parliament in 2016 approved a modified version of that plan in an attempt to mend fences.

Polling shows that Swiss voters remain deeply divided about how closely to align with the EU. 

Whatever the government ultimately decides will almost certainly be put to a referendum, as part of Switzerland's direct democracy system, creating further uncertainty on the terms of a final deal. 


How European countries are spending billions on easing energy crisis

European governments are announcing emergency measures on a near-weekly basis to protect households and businesses from the energy crisis stemming from Russia's war in Ukraine.

How European countries are spending billions on easing energy crisis

Hundreds of billions of euros and counting have been shelled out since Russia invaded its pro-EU neighbour in late February.

Governments have gone all out: from capping gas and electricity prices to rescuing struggling energy companies and providing direct aid to households to fill up their cars.

The public spending has continued, even though European Union countries had accumulated mountains of new debt to save their economies during the Covid pandemic in 2020.

But some leaders have taken pride at their use of the public purse to battle this new crisis, which has sent inflation soaring, raised the cost of living and sparked fears of recession.

After announcing €14billion in new measures last week, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi boasted the latest spending put Italy, “among the countries that have spent the most in Europe”.

The Bruegel institute, a Brussels-based think tank that is tracking energy crisis spending by EU governments, ranks Italy as the second-biggest spender in Europe, after Germany.

READ ALSO How EU countries aim to cut energy bills and avoid blackouts this winter

Rome has allocated €59.2billion since September 2021 to shield households and businesses from the rising energy prices, accounting for 3.3 percent of its gross domestic product.

Germany tops the list with €100.2billion, or 2.8 percent of its GDP, as the country was hit hard by its reliance on Russian gas supplies, which have dwindled in suspected retaliation over Western sanctions against Moscow for the war.

On Wednesday, Germany announced the nationalisation of troubled gas giant Uniper.

France, which shielded consumers from gas and electricity price rises early, ranks third with €53.6billion euros allocated so far, representing 2.2 percent of its GDP.

Spending to continue rising
EU countries have now put up €314billion so far since September 2021, according to Bruegel.

“This number is set to increase as energy prices remain elevated,” Simone Tagliapietra, a senior fellow at Bruegel, told AFP.

The energy bills of a typical European family could reach €500 per month early next year, compared to €160 in 2021, according to US investment bank Goldman Sachs.

The measures to help consumers have ranged from a special tax on excess profits in Italy, to the energy price freeze in France, and subsidies public transport in Germany.

But the spending follows a pandemic response that increased public debt, which in the first quarter accounted for 189 percent of Greece’s GDP, 153 percent in Italy, 127 percent in Portugal, 118 percent in Spain and 114 percent in France.

“Initially designed as a temporary response to what was supposed to be a temporary problem, these measures have ballooned and become structural,” Tagliapietra said.

“This is clearly not sustainable from a public finance perspective. It is important that governments make an effort to focus this action on the most vulnerable households and businesses as much as possible.”

Budget reform
The higher spending comes as borrowing costs are rising. The European Central Bank hiked its rate for the first time in more than a decade in July to combat runaway inflation, which has been fuelled by soaring energy prices.

The yield on 10-year French sovereign bonds reached an eight-year high of 2.5 percent on Tuesday, while Germany now pays 1.8 percent interest after boasting a negative rate at the start of the year.

The rate charged to Italy has quadrupled from one percent earlier this year to four percent now, reviving the spectre of the debt crisis that threatened the eurozone a decade ago.

“It is critical to avoid debt crises that could have large destabilising effects and put the EU itself at risk,” the International Monetary Fund warned in a recent blog calling for reforms to budget rules.

The EU has suspended until 2023 rules that limit the public deficit of countries to three percent of GDP and debt to 60 percent.

The European Commission plans to present next month proposals to reform the 27-nation bloc’s budget rules, which have been shattered by the crises.