Switzerland and EU in dialogue: Šefčovič and Cassis exchange views in Bern

Switzerland is holding exploratory talks with the EU. In the course of discussions, Switzerland and the EU have developed a common understanding of the sectoral approach, also known as the package approach, proposed by the Federal Council. Background and information on the exploratory talks, which have been ongoing since March 2022, can be found here in the news ticker.

Ignazio Cassis and Maroš Šefčovič are sitting at a table. The Swiss and European flags are displayed.

Mr. Cassis and Mr. Šefčovič acknowledged and appreciated the work so far by the Swiss and European Commission delegations. © FDFA

15.03.2023 – Switzerland and EU in dialogue: Šefčovič and Cassis exchange views in Bern

  • Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis met with the Vice-President of the European Commission Maroš Šefčovič on 15 March 2023 in Berne.
  • The meeting took place in the context of the first visit of Mr. Šefčovič to Switzerland in his capacity as responsible for EU-Swiss relations.
  • The exchange between Mr. Cassis and Mr. Šefčovič provided an opportunity to take stock at political level of the exploratory process between Switzerland and the European Union (EU) started in March 2022 as well as to discuss the next steps.
  • Mr. Cassis and Mr. Šefčovič acknowledged and appreciated the work so far by the Swiss and European Commission delegations during the exploratory talks led by State Secretary Livia Leu and head of the Vice-President’s cabinet Juraj Nociar and during the related technical talks.
  • The delegations’ work has produced concrete outcomes. Switzerland and the EU have in fact sharpened their common understanding and have come closer together in several areas over the past few months.
  • The work towards a common understanding between Switzerland and the European Commission on all structural issues has achieved some progress and a better shared understanding on a number of issues.
  • Foreign Minister Cassis highlighted that the exploratory process with the EU has been accompanied in Switzerland by extensive internal consultations with relevant stakeholders, including the cantons, the economic sector, the trade unions and the political parties.
  • Mr. Cassis underlined that this important, inclusive approach has facilitated the search for solutions and strengthened the process. It has also demonstrated Switzerland’s commitment to achieving concrete and durable outcomes that would be viable for both Switzerland and the EU.
  • Mr. Cassis and Mr. Šefčovič took note that despite the progress made so far, a number of outstanding issues remain, which will require efforts from both sides in order to further narrow the gaps in the shared understanding.
  • To this effect, the next exploratory talks will take place on 20 April 2023 in Brussels.
  • Mr. Cassis and Mr. Šefčovič reiterated Switzerland’s and the Commission’s commitment to continue working together towards a common understanding on all structural issues in order to have the way towards a possible decision with respect to the start of formal negotiations.

Regulated relations between Switzerland and the EU are important, providing both with a guarantee of prosperity and stability.

Federal Council’s package approach

Switzerland is seeking to further develop its relations with the EU. The Federal Council therefore developed and adopted new proposals for solutions in the form of the package approach in February 2022:

  • Instead of regulating institutional issues in an agreement that provides the framework for other agreements (horizontal approach), these issues are to be resolved individually in each agreement (sectoral approach).
  • Instead of one agreement, an entire package of agreements should be discussed, providing a more balanced solution overall. This allows for a broad balance of interests and increases the chances of success of any negotiations.

Switzerland would like to participate in EU programmes and be able to conclude new agreements, for example on electricity, on food safety and on health.

In individual agreements, Switzerland needs exceptions and safeguard clauses in order to be able to protect its essential interests. In the case of the free movement of persons, it must be ensured that further developments in EU law do not lead to immigration into the social system, that wage and working conditions are not undermined and that constitutionality is guaranteed.

The demand for exceptions stems from the fact that Switzerland is not a member of the EU and therefore neither demands the same rights nor has the same obligations as an EU member state. Switzerland seeks to achieve – while preserving its political autonomy – broad-based participation in the EU's single market.  

Exploratory talks with the European Commission

With the Federal Council's decision on the package approach, State Secretary Livia Leu was mandated to explore this approach with the European Commission. In these exploratory talks, the potential of the new approach is being sounded out – an indispensable preparation for any negotiations. On 17 June 2022, the Federal Council decided to intensify the exploratory talks. Since then, talks have also been held at the technical level on free movement of persons and state aid. The aim of the exploratory talks is to find out whether there is a sufficiently solid basis on which to begin negotiations. 

InstA: the points of contention

For Switzerland, differences on the following essential points were insurmountable:

  • the threat to the tried and tested protection against wage dumping (accompanying measures);
  • the feared increase in EU social welfare recipients and the impossibility of being able to withdraw residence rights or deport persons convicted of criminal offences (EU Citizens’ Rights Directive);
  • open questions concerning the regulation of state aid (level playing field)

Institutional agreement

No signing of Swiss–EU institutional agreement, 26.05.2021

Domestic political support

The success of any negotiations depends not only on their outcome but also on their broad political acceptance domestically. The Federal Council has therefore been holding regular talks with the most important domestic political stakeholders in Switzerland, in addition to the exploratory talks. With a newly created sounding board, it has strengthened dialogue with social partners and the business community in particular. The exchanges with Parliament, the cantons and political parties has been institutionalised for some time. Close coordination within the Federal Administration is ensured by a steering group with representatives from all departments and the Federal Chancellery.

Switzerland and the EU: closely linked

 A graphic illustrates the relationship between Switzerland and the EU.
Intensive exchange between Switzerland and the EU: thousands of people live, work and study in Switzerland and the EU. © FDFA

Switzerland and the EU are closely intertwined and share the same fundamental values, as illustrated by the following examples:

  • The EU is by far our most important trading partner, with around half of our exports going to the EU and about two thirds of our imports coming from the EU.
  • Switzerland is one of the EU's biggest trading partners, and the EU is Switzerland's biggest trading partner. In 2021, Switzerland was the EU's third most important trading partner in services, after the US and the UK.
  • At the end of September 2022, 374,000 cross-border commuters were working in Switzerland. Or seen from the other perspective, Switzerland obtained 374,000 workers from the EU/EFTA.
  • Cooperation in research: among third countries, Switzerland was the biggest contributor to the EU budget in 2014–19 with EUR 2.2 billion, 80% of which was devoted to research and innovation.
  • With the construction of the New Rail Link through the Alps (NRLA) at a cost of around CHF 23 billion, Switzerland has significantly increased capacities for environmentally friendly freight transport and smooth trade in the EU single market.
  • The EU and Switzerland share the most important basic political values ('community of values'): the unconditional commitment to human rights, to an open and liberal society, to a pluralistic democracy with freedom of expression and a free press, and to free trade as a driver for prosperity and stability. This is particularly important in times of war and the rise of authoritarian forces. 

07.03.2023 – More in-depth discussion at the eighth round of exploratory talks

State Secretary Livia Leu and Juraj Nociar, the head of cabinet of the EU Commissioner responsible for Switzerland, met once again in Brussels on 7 March. Their discussions highlighted the progress made in the previous rounds of talks, in particular on the issue of state aid. Consensus was also reached that additional new agreements need to be concluded, for example on electricity. Both parties expressed their satisfaction with the flexibility afforded by the package approach. The discussions took place in a constructive atmosphere.

A number of questions remain outstanding, however, which is usual in such a process. Further more detailed discussions will be needed on several key issues. Switzerland is seeking to secure exceptions within several agreements to better protect its own interests. Particular issues surround the smooth functioning of the labour market and the high level of wages, making it essential that any solution must take into account Switzerland's interests in this regard.

The rounds of exploratory talks are therefore continuing and will pave the way for the future negotiations. The next round of talks will take place on 20 April 2023.

Maroš Šefčovič, the European Commission's vice-president for interinstitutional relations and foresight, will also be in Switzerland on 15 and 16 March. He and Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis will take the opportunity to exchange views on 15 March. This will not be a negotiation, but an in-depth dialogue on all elements of the package. The discussions between Mr Šefčovič and the Swiss representatives will be an opportunity for both sides to improve their understanding of each other's positions.

The development and stabilisation of relations between Switzerland and the EU creates security and prosperity for both sides.

20.01.2023 – Seventh round of exploratory talks with the EU

The seventh round of exploratory talks between the FDFA and the European Commission took place on 20 January 2023, between FDFA State Secretary Livia Leu and Juraj Nociar, the head of cabinet of the EU Commissioner responsible for Switzerland. Discussions focused on the new agreements, which could form part of the Federal Council's package approach, especially in the areas of food security, electricity and public health.

The package approach proposed by the Federal Council increases the scope for solutions. The essential interests of Switzerland can be better addressed. This approach therefore offers good conditions for a balanced alignment of interests. The EU is Switzerland's most important trading partner and Switzerland is the EU's fourth most important trading partner. Switzerland and the EU share the same fundamental values. The development and stabilisation of relations between Switzerland and the EU is a source of prosperity and stability for both.

09.12.2022 – Federal Council presents draft report Assessment of Swiss-EU relations

 The report’s document with the Federal Palace in the background.
The Federal Council concludes in the report that the bilateral approach remains the best solution for Switzerland. © FDFA

At its meeting on 9 December, the Federal Council discussed the draft report 'Assessment of Swiss–EU relations. The Federal Council concludes in the report that the bilateral approach remains the most favourable solution for Switzerland. The report was adopted subject to the outcome of the consultation of the foreign affairs committees of both chambers of Parliament. Parliament, for its part, had repeatedly called on the Federal Council to conduct an assessment of Swiss policy on the EU.

Projet Rapport « État actuel des relations Suisse–UE » (sous réserve de la consultation des commissions de politique extérieure du Conseil national et du Conseil des États)

Press release

23.11.2022 – Federal Council debates status of exploratory talks with EU

 Livia Leu speaks with Juraj Nociar.
Livia Leu in discussion with Juraj Nociar, Head of Cabinet of European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic. © FDFA

On 23 November 2022, the Federal Council met to discuss Switzerland's relations with the European Union (EU). The main item on the agenda was the progress made in exploratory talks held thus far with the European Commission. The Federal Council welcomed the fact that progress had been made but noted that differences remained. It therefore decided to continue the in-depth exploratory talks phase.

Press release

11.10.2022 – Exploratory talks between Switzerland and the EU: organisational structure to ensure better management of policy and content

On 31 August 2022, the Federal Council decided to establish an organisational structure to ensure better management of policy and content for Switzerland's exploratory talks with the EU. This consists of a steering group involving all departments and a sounding board with representatives from the cantons, social partners and the business community. Both bodies are chaired by head of the FDFA and President of the Swiss Confederation Ignazio Cassis. The steering group was formed in September and the sounding board has been set up today.

Press release

25.02.2022 – Federal Council sets out approach for negotiations

At its retreat dealing with European policy on 23 February 2022, the Federal Council continued to debate the issues at hand and adopted a set of guidelines for its negotiating package with the EU. Regarding the institutional issues, the Federal Council decided on a vertical approach aimed at anchoring the different aspects in each individual single market agreement. This will be the basis for initiating exploratory talks with the EU. Ongoing work on the existing regulatory differences will continue in parallel.

Presse release

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