“Switzerland is playing a very dangerous game,” said Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis in a lengthy interview with Swiss daily NZZ.
“We run the risk of having to agree to a worse treaty,” he stated.
The Swiss government and the EU recently came up with a draft treaty designed to update bilateral relations between Bern and Brussels, which are currently based on around 120 agreements dating back two decades.
The EU is pushing hard for Switzerland to approve the deal but in the face of internal political division on issues including measures to protect Switzerland’s high wages, the Swiss government announced a consultation period.
But Cassis, a member of Switzerland’s centre-right Liberals party, defended the new deal, noting that it contains “80 percent of what we wanted”.
The minister also fears a failure to sign the deal could backfire on Switzerland.
“In the current situation, one can’t expect the EU to be more accommodating two years from now,” he warned.
“Because of Brexit, the EU has to show member states what it means to leave [the Union] or – as is the case of Switzerland – to not be a member,” he added.
He said that for the EU, Brexit and the Swiss negotiations were essentially “twin themes.”
“They [Brussels] have to lay down the law internally. The EU can only retain its credibility if it is tough on third-party countries like Switzerland,” he told NZZ.
Cassis also used the interview with the paper to defend Switzerland against an attack launched by Brussels earlier this week.
On Monday, European Commissioner Johannes Hahn warned Brussels wouldn’t be coming back to the negotiating table regarding a deal it considers final. He said there was “no such thing as an à la carte framework agreement” between Brussels and Bern.
“The ball is now in Bern's court,” he said.
But Cassis said the comments from Hahn came down to a “misunderstanding” over what constituted negotiations.
He said Switzerland had not actually negotiated with the EU on its wage protection measures or over the controversial possible future adoption by Switzerland of the Citizens' Rights Directive – an agreement which gives citizens of the European Economic Area (which includes the EU and Switzerland) and their families a wide range of rights in terms of freedom of movement and entitlement to welfare benefits, and which Switzerland has consistently refused to sign.
Instead, according to Cassis, what the EU had presented was an “offer”.
In a comment that is sure to send chills down the spines of many observers, he also said negotiations were never over. They could always begin again although “not with the same mandate” and with “an uncertain outcome”.
At present, internal political divisions in Switzerland over the new draft deal on bilateral relations with the EU are focused on the fact that it puts limits on how far Switzerland can go to protect its workforce against cheaper foreign labour, given these measures contravene EU rules on the free movement of persons.
Unions are angry that the notice period given by foreign firms deploying foreign workers in the country would be reduced from eight calendar days to four working days.The notice period is used by authorities to confirm companies are not undercutting high local salaries.
But in an attack on the left-wing and unions, Cassis said Switzerland should look for “pragmatic solutions” and not “conduct ideological warfare.”