Bern and Brussels are seeking to seal a long-delayed cooperation agreement, and last week Swiss President Guy Parmelin went to Brussels for talks with EU chief Ursula von der Leyen.
But Switzerland’s Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis said there was one central issue that remained unresolved.
“The sticking point of the disputes with the EU is the divergent interpretation of the free movement of persons,” Cassis told reporters late Monday.
“For Switzerland, it is essentially about the free movement of employees and their families. For the EU it is about the free movement of all citizens of the European Union.”
The “interpretation of labour law” is another disputed point, he added.
Without Brussels budging on these two issues, it will not be possible to conclude a framework agreement, Cassis said, insisting that Bern had made concrete proposals, but without going into detail.
At last week’s talks in Brussels, von der Leyen called for “flexibility” as the negotiations failed to make a breakthrough. Brussels has made no secret of its growing impatience to nail down a “framework agreement” to unify a patchwork of accords with Bern, 13 years in the making.
But the two sides remained at an impasse after the EU refused to budge on demands from Parmelin to exclude key issues relating to state aid, wage protections and freedom of movement from the pact.
On Monday, Parmelin said Switzerland had made important compromises, but said the government had “always maintained that “the three outstanding contentious points must be settled so that an agreement can go ahead.
The Swiss parliament’s foreign affairs committee, which was informed Monday about Friday’s meeting between Parmelin and von der Leyen, voted overwhelmingly in favour of continuing the negotiations.
Fears abound that failing to secure the framework deal could jeopardise Switzerland’s relationship with its largest trading partner at a time when more than half of all Swiss exports go to the bloc, which all but surrounds the landlocked country.
The agreement would rejig five major agreements within 120 bilateral accords that govern non-EU member Switzerland’s relations with the bloc.
Among other points, they touch on access to the single market and fine-tuning applicable Swiss and EU laws.
Since 2008, the EU has insisted Switzerland must sign the agreement before concluding any new bilateral deals.
On Friday, the EU notified Parmelin of its refusal to modify the text of the agreement.