The European Union revived in the face of a paralyzed Switzerland


European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visits Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Keystone / Ukrainian Presidential Press Service

The war in Ukraine has brought the countries of the old continent closer together. Switzerland must now find its place in this revived Europe, but everything leads us to believe that it could take too long to achieve this. Analysis.

This content was published on April 20, 2022 – 10:55 am

In Switzerland, the European Union (EU) is still easily referred to as an economic area, even though it has long interbred with a community of values. With the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Switzerland realizes that the EU is also a leading geopolitical player. The magnitude of sanctions taken against Russia has led the Kremlin to describe the current situation as “economic war”.

Before this conflict, the Covid pandemic had already boosted the integration process in the EU economically and logistically. In light of the war in Ukraine, alliances have been made in the fields of energy, defense and foreign policy. It is not without agility that the member states of the EU have shown their might. Enough to attract three new countries. Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova have indeed applied for membership and Brussels can guarantee them prosperity and security.

Between goodwill and expectation

How will this new situation affect relations between Switzerland and the EU? In reality, Bern now stands for a new partner. In short, the climate has changed. And despite its neutrality, Switzerland became aware of its integration into the Western Bloc. Politically, economically, but also from the angle of shared values.

Even militarily, security partnerships have brought the country closer to NATO and the EU. The fact remains that relations between Bern and Brussels have been frozen since May 2021, when Switzerland unilaterally broke off negotiations on a framework agreement with the EU, a decision that had caused a stir in Brussels.

A phone as a reward

Almost simultaneously with the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Switzerland decided to restart talks with the EU. Brussels notes that it is taking the European sanctions against Russia almost to the letter. This following resulted in a 15-minute telephone conversation for Bern, at the highest level, between the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and the President of the Confederation Ignazio Cassis, while Switzerland had until then had a single interlocutor in the person of the Vice-President of the European Commission, Slovak negotiator Maros Sefcovic.

However, it is not certain that this development will translate into benefits in future negotiations. Under the Federal Dome, Green-Liberal deputy Roland Fischer believes the war could even delay any rapprochement between Bern and Brussels. “Currently, the EU has other priorities,” notes the Lucerne National Councilor. However, he sees the opportunity for a better mutual understanding.

“Time for a new beginning”

The liberal-radical parliamentarian Christian Wasserfallen, who is also a member of the House of Representatives, agrees. “In the face of Russian aggression, the West has a vital interest in closing ranks,” he said. Faced with challenges at different levels, he believes it is time for the EU to end the “childishness” with Switzerland. “Now is definitely the time for a fresh start in our relations,” added the Bernese national councilor.

But for this process to succeed, Bern must also engage constructively, emphasizes Christian Wasserfallen in connection with the next vote on the financing of the European Border Surveillance Agency (Frontex). “A no to Frontex would be a fatal signal,” he said.

Brussels faces a fundamental dilemma. The EU undoubtedly wants to maintain good relations with Switzerland, but it should also not offer Bern an over-priced package, which could arouse desire within the Union after the difficult negotiations over Brexit and the ongoing quarrels with Poland and Hungary. Examples where Bern says the European Commission has now gained more confidence in itself.

In terms of earnings, the positions remain very far apart. On the one hand, Switzerland is still in favor of a new package of bilateral agreements and access to the internal market by sector. On the other hand, Brussels advocates approximation of laws and the creation of a legal mechanism to settle disputes.

In times of war and destruction, these formal and technical questions may seem out of place. But the former bureaucratic monster that was the EU has become a dynamic player where decisions are made quickly.

Bern is what Brussels was

Faced with the war in Ukraine, the EU has shown itself to be more reactive and better prepared than Switzerland. It seems even better directed and rigorously organized. Enough to give the EU more strength and reaffirmed sovereignty. This last point is central to the bilateral relationship between Bern and Brussels.

Switzerland’s procrastination is also causing irritation in the country. Concerns have been expressed about the degree of adaptation to the crisis. In Switzerland, the authorities are blaming the same shortcomings that were once addressed to Brussels: a paralyzing federalism, a hydrocephalus biting its own tail, a structure adapted to the economy, let alone to politics.


Swiss President Ignazio Cassis at a peace demonstration in Bern in March 2022. © Keystone / Peter Klaunzer

Result: the pro-European movement is on the rise again. For several months, parliamentarians and civil society NGOs have been urging the Swiss government to renegotiate with Brussels.

EEA as an option?

But at present, only a small minority of elected members of the Federal Assembly (Parliament) are in favor of joining the European Union. On the other hand, the idea of ​​a link with the European Economic Area (EEA) is again being discussed, while this idea was shelved in the 1990s after the rejection of an initiative in this direction. Deputy Roland Fischer, him, does not disarm. Indeed, the latter has just submitted a postulate in parliament instructing the Federal Council to examine the possibility of joining this free trade zone.

Accession to the EEA has historically been seen as a transitional solution to full EU membership. But today the EEA is more established. “This option also needs to be discussed,” says Roland Fischer. According to him, the time is right, with a high acceptance rate. The EEA could also see a revival in the Balkans, as a possible alternative to a running out of EU enlargement and a counter-model to Russia’s influence, which is seen as destabilizing.

Other ideas have also emerged in the Swiss parliament, such as one-off associations with the EU, such as the Schengen area of ​​which Switzerland is a part. The chairman of the Center Party, Gerhard Pfister, for his part, opened the debate on how his country could integrate its aircraft into a European defense strategy in the future. Even though Switzerland has opted to purchase F-35 aircraft, American fighters.

The Resurrection of NATO

Diagnosed with “brain death” by French President Emmanuel Macron two years ago, the Atlantic Alliance (NATO) immediately revived with the war in Ukraine. Shortly before, however, the Europeans had taken the opposite stance on the United States, downplaying information from their intelligence agencies that had warned of a Russian invasion.

Since then, many countries have announced increases in their spending on military budgets to meet NATO’s target of 2% of their gross domestic product (GDP). In Scandinavia, Finland (non-aligned country) and Sweden (neutral) talk about joining NATO. Desires that were hardly on the agenda before the outbreak of the conflict. Security policy in Europe has been so disrupted for more than a month that Sweden, like other countries in Europe, has also supplied arms to Ukraine. Proof by action that taboos can suddenly collapse.

For Bernese national councilor Christian Wasserfallen (liberal-radical), Swiss membership of NATO would not be considered today. “But Switzerland could be integrated into other levels of cooperation. For example, within the framework of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)”. This MEP would also see Switzerland participate in peacekeeping missions in Ukraine under the UN mandate, such as its previous deployment in Kosovo (SWISSCOY). The chairman of his party, Thierry Burkart, thinks that Switzerland should approach it.

End of insertion

However, the concept of rapprochement between Switzerland and the EU is not unanimous. The Democratic Center Union (UDC) does not want conservative and nationalist allegiance. This party is in favor of singletrack (Sonderweg). Some members have downplayed the Russian invasion of Ukraine and criticized the sanctions against Russia. The SVP wants to launch an initiative to strengthen the notion of neutrality in the Swiss constitution.

If the European order apparently still amounts to a rivalry between West and East, even a remake of the Cold War, European integration can no longer be reduced to economic issues. The debate on how Switzerland will position itself has only just begun.

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