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EXPLAINED: Why is Switzerland not part of the European Union?

EXPLAINED: Why is Switzerland not part of the European Union?
Proudly independent, Switzerland is not expected to join the EU. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP
In the world of multilateral pacts, Switzerland continues to eschew many international alliances. This is why.

To date, Switzerland is one of only a handful of western European nations that have not joined the European Union.

Bordered on all sides by member states (except for tiny Liechtenstein), Switzerland has often been referred to as a little rich island standing alone in the middle of Europe.

A phrase “Swiss paradox” has also been used to describe the country’s steadfast refusal to join the Union. That’s because Switzerland’s economy relies heavily on exports and its main trading partner is the EU.

Another paradox is that about one-quarter of Switzerland’s population are foreigners — most of them from the EU. 

Blame it on neutrality

“Switzerland  has a very strong sense of independence; joining the EU would impinge on its autonomy”, political scientist Daniel Warner, former deputy to the director of The Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, told The Local in an interview.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why is Switzerland always neutral?

In fact, the concept of sovereignty is so deeply entrenched in the Swiss psyche, that the country voted to join the United Nations only in 2002 — another obvious paradox, as Geneva is home to a number of UN organisations and agencies.

This doesn’t mean that attempts to join the EU haven’t been made.

In 1992, Swiss voters narrowly rejected (by 50.3 percent) the government-backed plan to join what was then the European Economic Area of 12 nations.

The main argument that swayed the voters was that the country’s unique grass-roots democracy would be undermined if political decisions affecting Switzerland would be made in Brussels rather than in Bern.

Nearly a decade later, in 2001, Swiss citizens voted on a popular initiative to open membership negotiations, but nearly 77 percent rejected the proposal.

Small concessions

Realising that some kind of relationship with the EU would be beneficial to the country’s trade-based economy, Switzerland gradually negotiated 120 bilateral agreements with Brussels.

These treaties include market access for Swiss exports, scientific research, student exchanges, police cooperation, as well as belonging to the Schengen Area, which provides for the free and unrestricted movement of people among member states.

Switzerland is also part of another non-EU member group — European Free Trade Association (EFTA) — which gives Switzerland and three other members (Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) access to some trade and economic perks within the association and the EU.

Love-hate relationship

While the bilateral arrangement with the Union has been mutually beneficial, cracks appeared in May 2021, when Switzerland ended framework agreement negotiations with Brussels. These talks were aimed at rejigging five major pacts, and fine-tuning applicable Swiss and EU laws.

However, the Federal Council “concluded that there remain substantial differences between Switzerland and the EU on key aspects,” and ended the talks.

The two sides hit an impasse after the EU refused to budge on demands from Swiss president Guy Parmelin to exclude key issues relating to state aid, wage protections and freedom of movement from the pact.

“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”, he added.

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

Is Switzerland likely to join the EU in the foreseeable future?

Not according to Warner.

“There is only a limited desire for membership”, he explained, mainly due to very strong anti-EU sentiments in the central part of Switzerland — primarily in rural areas — where most  supporters of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) live.

The SVP has staunchly opposed any moves to join the EU.

“Switzerland’s exceptional success in terms of prosperity, peace and social balance can be explained only by the pillars of this state, which are called direct democracy, federalism and armed neutrality. All of this would be threatened by the EU membership agreement. This contract would allow the EU to impose its rules in the areas of free movement of people, agricultural policy, industrial standards, energy supply and even north-south transit routes”, the party claims.

“This mentality is still prevalent”, Warner said.

So in terms of Switzerland joining the EU, “I don’t see it happening”, he added.


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