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Former top negotiator wants ‘proactive’ Swiss plan for EU

Ambühl, a long-term Swiss government official, is now professor of negotiation management at ETH Zürich. Marcel Bieri

Switzerland’s former chief negotiator with the European Union has presented his vision of how relations with Brussels can be reformulated, two months after talks on a framework agreement were ditched.

This content was published on August 4, 2021 - 11:36
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Michael Ambühl, who led Swiss negotiations with the EU from 2001-2004, proposed a three-step plan based on restoring goodwill, establishing a clear Swiss position, and renegotiating a series of bilateral deals with the EU.

Ambühl presented the ideas in a paper published this week with his colleague at the Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETHZ) Daniela Scherer. Both are professors of negotiation management at the university.

“The EU is Switzerland’s most important partner. And as the smaller side in the negotiations it’s important to proactively make suggestions,” Scherer told SRF radio on Tuesday.

The first step in their scheme would be to smooth relations after the unilateral breaking of talks on a framework deal in May: Switzerland could do this by releasing – and perhaps increasing – a “cohesion” payment owed to the EU, and boosting political cooperation in areas like health and climate.

The second stage would be a political declaration of intent from the Swiss side: a statement, backed by parliament, that would present a clear position of the country’s place and goals in Europe.

Lastly, the professors say, the web of bilateral deals that determine relations with the EU – and which threaten to erode over time – should be renegotiated, with concessions made to dynamically take over certain parts of EU law into Swiss law.

The three most disputed areas of policy, which led to the downfall of the framework deal – wage protection, citizenship rights, and state aid rules – would be left out of these new bilateral negotiations for the time being.

Lastly, the equally controversial role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in resolving disputes is simply removed from the plan, replaced by a joint body which would rule on the proportionality of punitive measures.

EU position in autumn

Thomas Cottier, a prominent Europe expert who has been critical of the government’s axing of the framework deal, wasn’t convinced by the plan. It’s “wishful thinking from a Swiss point of view, and doesn’t really take into account the needs of the EU”, he told SRF.

By this, Cottier largely meant the role of the ECJ, which the EU is adamant must play a role when it comes to ruling on disputes; if the ECJ is removed, then Switzerland, like the UK, would also have to leave the single market, he said.

Franz Grüter from the right-wing People’s Party – which has an anti-EU stance – was also not enthused. Though he welcomed the idea to remove the ECJ from the picture, he said that the dynamic uptake of EU legislation would mean a “further loss of Swiss sovereignty”.

Following the end of the framework agreement in May, there has been some confusion about the next stage of Swiss-EU policy. For its part, the EU says it will communicate its position later this autumn.

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