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date: 21 January 2021

Switzerland and European Integrationlocked

  • Clive H. ChurchClive H. ChurchDepartment of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent


Despite its economic importance, Switzerland is surprisingly little studied. Hence it can be misunderstood. For many, it seems to have a successful relationship with the European Union (EU). In reality, Europe has become a problematic issue for the Swiss. Swiss policy has been reactive and largely driven by a conflict between pragmatic Swiss, inspired by traditional views of the needs of a neutral and federal country, and a growing body of populist Europhobes. The former are, doubtful about the “European idea” but know that a price has to be paid for vital economic advantages. The latter detest the EU and want little involvement with it, regarding political independence as more important than economic gains. The conflict between the two views can be bitter, and destabilizing.

Because of this, the key aim of Swiss policy has been to achieve some kind of third way, combining nonmembership with deep economic integration. Achieving this has become increasingly difficult despite the country’s central geographical and cultural position. This means transport links and population movements are important elements in Swiss relationships with the EU, alongside its economic and legislative involvement. Yet, at the same time, Switzerland has preserved a notable detachment from Europe’s political institutions.

Swiss relations with the EU have been evolving since 1945. The present difficulties are merely the latest, as well as perhaps the most challenging, phase of a long-standing encounter with Europe. There have been four phases in Swiss postwar relations with European integration. Initially, there was considerable reluctance to get involved, but, after some hesitation, the country entered the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and secured a free trade deal with the European Community (EC). This worked well, bringing Switzerland into what the Swiss liked to see as quasi-membership.

This began to change in the mid-1980s, when Swiss needs and EC change led to a second phase, of seeking a deeper relationship. This led to the European Economic Area (EEA) negotiations and, when this was judged to be insufficient by the government, to a membership application. The defeat of the EEA proposal on December 6, 1992, by an emerging populist force unleashed increasing contestation over Europe. It also forced the country into a third phase of seeking bilateral makeweights for exclusion from the EEA. By the early years of the new century, this led to the present situation, which is more complicated than is often realized and is driven by indirect Europeanization. At the same time, the bilateral approach became both popular with a majority and increasingly contested on the right.

Moreover, a fourth phase has seen bilateralism increasingly contested by the EU as well, causing a long-drawn-out impasse. This was partly because the “Stop Mass Migration” initiative of February 9, 2014, threatened to undermine the existing bilaterals. A solution to this problem was found by the parliament in late 2017, but further problems appeared as, in December 2018, the country found itself apparently being asked to decide about accepting a framework agreement to regularize its sprawling range of EU deals. Given its internal divisions, this may not be possible, so the fourth phase could well persist. In any case, Europe is likely to remain a major source of profit and pain for Switzerland.

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