The EU and its 28 member states are by far Switzerland’s most important partners. This is not just due to the EU’s political and economic weight but also to Switzerland’s geographical and cultural closeness to the countries of the EU.
The economic relationship is thereby especially important: two thirds of Switzerland’s foreign trade is with the EU. In 2016, 54% of Switzerland’s exports went to the EU while 72% of its imports came from there. Switzerland is one of the EU’s three most important trading partners, alongside the US and China (2015).
The closeness of this relationship clearly requires an active European policy. Switzerland has adopted a policy to safeguard its interests based on bilateral agreements with the EU. Concrete questions and problems in clearly deﬁned areas are regulated by a series of bilateral agreements. This pragmatic step-by-step approach has made it possible to devise tailor-made contractual solutions to a wide range of economic and political questions. The agreements do not only provide both parties with extensive market access, they are also a basis for close cooperation in key policy areas. The bilateral approach enables Switzerland to adopt a policy based on openness and close cooperation with its European neighbours. Examples include cooperation in the cross-border taxation of savings income and combating fraud, coordination of asylum policy procedures and Switzerland’s contribution to European enlargement or cohesion in support of the new EU member states. This approach also guarantees Switzerland’s continued institutional independence. As a non-member of the EU, however, Switzerland has no right to partake in the decision-making at the EU level.
The objective of Switzerland’s European policy is to create the best possible basis for relations with the EU. It is with this in mind that the bilateral agreements between Switzerland and the EU (including with its predecessor organisations) have been continuously developed and deepened over the decades. Altogether around 20 main agreements plus a large number of secondary agreements have been concluded in various stages. This bilateral approach has been approved at regular intervals by the Swiss electorate in a series of referendums – seven since the year 2000.
On 9 February 2014, the Swiss electorate voted in favour of the popular initiative ‘Stop mass immigration’. The new constitutional provisions require immigration to be capped and subject to a system of quotas. On 16 December 2016, Parliament adopted the legislation to implement these provisions. The law is compatible with the Agreement on the free movement of persons. With the adopted legislation, Parliament has given the green light both to the extension of the free movement of persons to Croatia and to Switzerland’s full association with the EU research framework programme «Horizon 2020» as from 1 January 2017.
At its meeting on 21 December 2016, the Federal Council resolved to draw up two versions of a direct counter-proposal to the Rasa initiative for consultation. In both versions, the mandate for controlling immigration is retained in the Constitution. Both versions also guarantee the continued existence of the bilateral agreements. The Federal Council is going to submit a message to Parliament within the legal deadline of 27 April 2017.
Following the adoption of the popular initiative against mass immigration, the Federal Council repeatedly stressed that the bilateral agreements are the best instrument for building its relations with the EU. Since then, it has pursued a strategy to advance current and future negotiations on the various dossiers on European policy in their entirety and to coordinate them in order to obtain the best possible result for Switzerland.
In its report on the foreign policy priorities for 2016–2019, the Federal Council has specified that Switzerland’s relations with the EU/EFTA and especially with its neighbouring countries should be strengthened. Specifically, it wants to ensure a regulated relationship with the EU, based on partnership and with scope for further development.
Since the referendum in the UK on the country’s withdrawal from the EU on 23 June 2016, the Federal Council has been monitoring the situation in the UK and the EU on an ongoing basis. It has decided to strengthen the interdepartmental steering group United Kingdom/EU, which had already been set up before the referendum took place. The existing rules remain in force until further notice.