After the breakdown of negotiations with Brussels: What next?

Panel discussion at the 51st conference of the "Progress Foundation" on 31 May 2021 at the Zunfthaus zur Meisen in Zurich (excerpts)

mw. In the mainstream media, it is – not surprisingly – mainly the critics of the Federal Council’s decision who have their say. But this does not silence the mostly democratic and liberal sentiment among the people. Coincidentally, a few days after the decision of 26 May, the Progress Foundation held a conference in Zurich on “Sovereignty from below. Switzerland in the International Environment”, with presentations by Dr h.c. Beat Kappeler and Professor Oliver Zimmer. It goes without saying that part of the subsequent panel discussion was devoted to the failed Framework Agreement and the question: “What next?” The panellists (the two speakers as well as Foundation President Dr Gerhard Schwarz and NZZ domestic editor Katharina Fontana) were all on firm footing.

Discussion leader Mark Dittli began the discussion on the conference topic (“Sovereignty from bottom up. Switzerland in the international environment”) with the Federal Council’s decision on 26 May to break off negotiations on the Framework Agreement, due to current events. His question to the panellists: “What next?”

Talk to each other again and find out where there are possibilities for cooperation

Katharina Fontana was relieved about the decision: “I don't share this lamentation in the media. [...] I cannot imagine the EU going against its own interests, so to speak, for a long time. [...] I am optimistic.”
  Gerhard Schwarz: “In a liberal state, saying no is often more important than always saying what you should do. [...] From my point of view, the mistake was not to break off now, but the mistake was to have negotiated for seven years without having thought about what exactly one wanted. This brings me to our topic, namely what kind of understanding of the state we have in Switzerland and to what extent this is compatible with the understanding of the state of the neighbouring states and with the understanding of the state of the EU, which always claims to be a sui generis entity, but is actually permanently on its way to becoming its own superstate. What now? means: Calm down a bit, don't hyperventilate and, above all, talk to each other again and find out where there are possibilities for cooperation and agreements and where there just aren’t.”

Don’t lose your nerve and sit out the situation – after all, nothing happened!

Beat Kappeler: “I think it is one of the hardest things for politicians to sit out a hanging situation. The media and politicians are always asking for handles to be pulled and something to be instigated again. I think this is something that has to be sat out for once. I would go even further and say: Nothing has happened. For the time being, the bilaterals are probably on track for the long term. The free trade agreement [of 1972] does not have to be renegotiated, as the framework agreement would have required. [...] What will happen now if the Swiss and economiesuisse don’t lose their nerve and signal: We definitely, definitely want something, then the EU will probably come forward either with small pinpricks or with quite fundamental concerns: Something should be regulated here, something should be regulated there. Then one can insist on it. [...]
  So: Don’t lose your nerve and insist on the promises we have made with the EU over 40 or 50 years and continue to build. And continue to strongly expand the share of our foreign relations outside Europe, be it with free trade agreements or with actual export activities. We have doubled the share of exports to America in the last twenty years, we have incredibly strengthened foreign trade with Asia [...]. We can still make further gains there.”

Experiences with Brexit: Endure Deviation from the European norm

Oliver Zimmer: “In politics, at some point you come to a decision where you say no or yes. Every scientist knows: saying no is something completely natural, it is not a negative force. Getting that across is important. The idea that Switzerland will unite and suddenly have a consensus is, I think, an illusion. I think this division will remain to some extent. What I think is important is that we endure it, that we communicate this deviation – it is a deviation in Europe, Switzerland and Great Britain, there are no other communities that have set themselves apart in this way – within the country and towards the outside: There is no negativity associated with it.”

Becoming more robust against the media culture war

Oliver Zimmer: “I experienced the media coverage during the Brexit years. From A to Z, for years, Great Britain was ridiculed, especially in the German-language media, in a way I would never have expected from quality newspapers. I think you have to be able to take that, as a citizen or as a politician. It needs more robustness. The media campaign alone that I followed – if there had been any instability on the part of the British government, then the decision would have had to be changed immediately. It was a media culture war. 80 per cent of the opinions were that the British are impossible islanders. I think that’s where you have to be a bit more robust.”  •


Prof. Oliver Zimmer, Oxford University;
Dr. h. c. Beat Kappeler, long-time General Secretary of the Swiss Federation of Trade Unions SGB;
Dr. Katharina Fontana, domestic editor of the "Neue Zürcher Zeitung";
Dr. Gerhard Schwarz, President of the Board of Trustees of the "Progress Foundation";
Chair: Mark Dittli, Editor-in-Chief of The Market

Source: Video recording of the panel discussion at

(Translation Current Concerns)


Breaking off negotiations is a decision matured over years

Interview with Dr Gerhard Schwarz*

On the fringes of the 51st Economic Conference of the “Progress Foundation”, which took place on 31 May in Zurich and was dedicated to the topic of “Sovereignty from Below”, the opportunity arose to ask Dr Gerhard Schwarz, President of the Foundation Board and head of the conference, questions that had developed in the course of the panel discussion.

Current Concerns: Switzerland is a weighty economic partner for the EU, and it is also highly attractive financially. So why shouldn’t Switzerland propose that the EU allow the Bilateral Agreements to be adapted to developments in EU regulations to the extent that they are adequate for us? In return, we could contribute, for example, CHF 500 million annually for selected projects under the Cohesion Fund. If the EU resorted to arbitrary pinpricks again, we would suspend payments (as Parliament did some time ago). How do you see that?
Gerhard Schwarz: The question fails to recognise that the Single Market was never just an economic project, but always a political one as well. That is why the EU has trouble with such à-la-carte approaches, which it interprets as cherry-picking. The guillotine clause, which is supposed to prevent only individual treaties of the entire package from being terminated, is an outgrowth of this mindset. I rather plead for a unilateral application of the so-called “Cassis de Dijon” principle with regard to technical norms and standards: products that are approved in the EU should also be approved in our country without further ado, since we can assume that the EU does not protect its citizens less and worse than we do. I would certainly not want to understand the cohesion payments as a price for any specific counter-performance by the EU, otherwise this will arouse covetousness. Every time we want something from the EU, it then demands an increase in these payments. I consider these payments to be a kind of compensation for the general benefit we get from the EU, from its cooperation, from its stabilisation function in Europe, etc.

At the moment, many Swiss are not primarily concerned about the expected reaction of the EU, but about the massive counter-campaign against the termination of negotiations at home. Do you have a perspective here?
Yes, the insulted and defiant reaction does not exactly correspond to Swiss customs after decisions of this scope. The same people who are complaining – rightly, in my opinion – about the grotesquely long negotiations are acting as if this decision was a hasty gut decision. On the contrary, it is a decision that has matured over years. And five federal councillors from three parties are said to have been in favour of the break-off. In view of this breadth, I therefore hope for a certain sovereignty on the part of the “losers” and for their constructive cooperation in a broad-based fitness programme for Switzerland.  •

*  Dr Gerhard Schwarz was a member of the business editorial team of the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” from 1981, and its head from 1994–2010. From 2010–2016 he was director of the think tank Avenir Suisse, Zurich, and from 1989–2014 he was a lecturer at the University of Zurich.

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