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EUROPEAN UNION

EXPLAINED: Why did Switzerland call off EU talks and what are the consequences?

Switzerland on Wednesday called off years of talks with the European Union aimed at sealing a cooperation agreement with Bern's largest trading partner, in a move which angered Brussels.

EXPLAINED: Why did Switzerland call off EU talks and what are the consequences?
A person listens on to a debate between the EU and Switzerland. Frederick FLORIN / AFP

Brussels and Bern have spent more than a decade discussing a so-called framework deal, which would rejig five major agreements within a patchwork of 120 accords that govern non-EU member Switzerland’s relations with the surrounding bloc.

But Swiss President Guy Parmelin said that the 13 years of talks had hit the end of the road, in a move which could jeopardise relations with the EU, which had made no secret of its impatience to nail down a deal.

‘Significant differences’: Switzerland cuts talks with EU over cooperation agreement

Parmelin went to Brussels in late April for talks with EU chief Ursula von der Leyen, but the pair made no headway on resolving a range of sticking points.

The two sides hit 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.

In a statement, the Swiss government, known as the Federal Council, said it reviewed the outcome of those talks on Wednesday.

“It concluded that there remain substantial differences between Switzerland and the EU on key aspects,” it said.

“The conditions are thus not met for the signing of the agreement. The Federal Council today took the decision not to sign the agreement, and communicated this decision to the EU.”

The move brings the negotiations to a close, the statement said.

‘A matter of fairness’ 

There is concern that failing to secure the framework deal might rock Switzerland’s relationship with the EU at a time when around half of all Swiss exports go to the bloc, which all but surrounds the landlocked country.

Among other points, the ditched agreement covered access to the single market and fine-tuning applicable Swiss and EU laws.

The overarching deal would have required revising the agreements on free movement, industrial standards, agriculture, air and land transport — and the creation of a joint arbitration court that could settle differences and enable compensation for breaches.

Since 2008, the EU has insisted Switzerland must sign the agreement before concluding any new bilateral deals, with negotiations getting underway in 2014.

For Brussels, those talks concluded in 2018, but the Swiss continued to press for changes and repeatedly put off signing.

The European Commission — the EU’s executive branch — hit out at Bern’s move.

The commission said the EU-Swiss Institutional Framework Agreement was essential for an enhanced future relationship.

“We regret this decision, given the progress that has been made,” the European Commission said in a statement. It said the deal’s core purpose was “fundamentally a matter of fairness and legal certainty”.

“Privileged access to the Single Market must mean abiding by the same rules and obligations.”

The commission said relations between the EU and Switzerland were already not up to speed with where they should be.

“Without this agreement, this modernisation of our relationship will not be possible,” it added.

Switzerland worried that the deal could erode wage protections in the wealthy Alpine country, where salaries are significantly higher than in the neighbouring EU.

So what are the consequences of ending talks and what happens now?

The Federal Council had faced pressure from the economic and financial sectors to save the deal — and demands from opponents to not cave in to the EU.

There have also been calls for the agreement to be put to a referendum, in keeping with the Swiss direct democracy system.

Despite Wednesday’s decision, Bern said it wanted further political talks with Brussels on the road ahead.

“The Federal Council nevertheless considers it to be in the shared interest of Switzerland and the EU to safeguard their well-established cooperation and to systematically maintain the agreements already in force,” the government said.

“It therefore wishes to launch a political dialogue with the EU on continued cooperation.”

While it is not yet clear what the repercussions of Switzerland’s move will be, they could potentially impact various sectors of the country’s economy, exports, as well as continued cooperation in the areas of trade, education and research.

Also, an estimated 1.4 million EU citizens live and work in Switzerland, including 340,000 frontier workers who are employed in various industries in border cantons, so Swiss labour market could be affected as well.

That’s why “a long-term and stable relationship with the European Union remains of utmost importance for the Swiss economy”, said Economiesuisse, an association representing Switzerland’s business interests.

It added that “it is now necessary to stabilise the existing agreements and minimise the damage”.

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BREXIT

Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Brexit really does mean that Britons are no longer EU citizens. Claudia Delpero looks at whether there's any other way they can keep their rights.

Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Britons lost EU citizenship when the UK left the EU, on 1st February 2020. 

It is the first time the EU’s top court has rules on the matter, after a number of legal cases challenged this specific Brexit outcome. The decision also sets a precedent should other countries decide to leave the bloc in the future. 

What has the EU Court decided?

The Court of Justice decided on a case brought by a British woman living in France.

Before Brexit, she could vote and stand as a candidate in her town of residence, Thoux. But after the UK withdrawal from the EU, she was removed from the electoral roll and excluded from the municipal elections that took place in March 2020, during the transition period.  

As the mayor refused her appeal to restore the registration, she took the case to the regional court in Auch, which agreed to request an interpretation of the rules to the EU top court. 

Julien Fouchet, the barrister supporting her and several other cases on the EU citizenship of British nationals, argued that the loss of EU citizenship and voting rights was disproportionate. It would also be contrary to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, given that the woman also lost her voting rights in the UK, having lived abroad for more than 15 years.

Alice Bouillez, who has lived in France since 1984 and is married to a French national, could have applied for French citizenship, but did not do so because she said “this was not necessary” before Brexit and, as a former UK official, she had taken an oath of allegiance to the Queen.

On Thursday the Court of Justice announced the decision about her case. The court ruled that the “possession of the nationality of a member state is an essential condition for a person to be able to acquire and retain the status of citizen of the Union and to benefit fully from the rights attaching to that status.”

The court therefore confirmed that British nationals automatically lost their EU citizenship as a result of Brexit and, as a consequence, Britons also lost their voting and electoral rights in municipal elections in the EU (unless the country where they live set different rules). 

What is EU citizenship?

EU citizenship was introduced by the Treaty of Maastricht of 1992, when borders were opening and the bloc was integrating economically after the end of the Cold War. 

Under the treaty, every person holding the nationality of an EU member state is a citizen of the Union. EU citizenship is additional and does not replace nationality, the treaty specifies. But this creates the first form of a transnational citizenship that grants rights across borders.

EU citizens have the right to access each other’s territory, job market and services under the principle of non-discrimination. If they are economically active, they have the right to reside in other EU states and be joined by family members, access healthcare at the same conditions of nationals (for emergency treatment also when travelling temporarily), obtain social security benefits and see their professional qualifications recognised.

Beyond free movement, at the core of EU citizenship there are also political rights, such as participating in the European Parliament election, voting and standing as candidates in municipal elections when living in other EU countries, receiving consular protection from other EU states outside the EU, and taking part in European Citizens’ Initiatives asking to the EU to legislate on certain matters. 

Which EU citizenship rights have Britons lost with Brexit? 

For British citizens who were living in the EU before Brexit, the Withdrawal Agreement protects some of these rights. Britons covered by deal have their residence, access to work and education, healthcare, social security and qualifications secured, but only in the country where they were living before Brexit.

But the right to free movement in other EU states, consular protection in third countries, and the political rights attached to EU citizenship were lost, the Court confirmed. 

For British citizens in the UK, the trade and cooperation agreement has preserved some social security rights and, in theory, the possibility to have professional qualifications recognized when moving to an EU country. These provisions however lack details and may take a long time before they work in practice. 

As the “European Union” no longer features on British passports, the possibility to access EU lanes at airports to skip passport control queues has also vanished. 

“The loss of those treasured rights has been clear to those of us living in the EU from the early days of Brexit. But for Brits in the UK, the realities of life outside the EU, and the consequences of Brexit, are only just dawning. Long queues at the borders, roaming charges, obstacles to working abroad, etc. are the new reality,” said Sue Wilson, Chair of the group Remain in Spain. 

While she said the court’s decision was “no real surprise,” she argued that “this is not the Brexit the public were promised, or that the majority voted for.”

Can British citizens get some of these rights back?

Julien Fouchet was disappointed at the Court decision and promised to continue the legal fight, bringing the case at the European Court of Human Rights (which is not an EU institution). 

Other two cases on the matter of EU citizenship for British nationals are still pending at the Court of Justice of the EU. One of them aims to determine whether EU citizenship is a “fundamental status” that cannot be removed but Thursday’s decision could have already provided the answer.

Another option to reconsider some of the rights is the renegotiation of EU-UK trade agreement, when it will be reviewed in 2025. 

Meanwhile, the EU is revising the rules for non-EU citizens living in EU countries on a long-term basis, making it easier to move across borders. 

Applying for citizenship is so far the only option to regain voting rights, although not all EU countries allow dual nationality. 

Sue Wilson, who has long campaigned for the UK to stay in the EU, said: “There is only one way to restore the loss of our rights, and that’s to rejoin the single market, rejoin the customs union, and eventually, rejoin the European Union… Until that day, we will continue to be second class citizens whose rights have been diminished for the sake of an ideology.”

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