Something is happening in Switzerland’s direct democracy

More and more voices call for a fresh start with Brussels

by Dr iur. Marianne Wüthrich

Recently, new associations and committees have been speaking out in favour of a free, just and solidary Switzerland or a cosmopolitan, economically successful and free Switzerland (the adjective “free” is rarely missing among us Swiss). Two referendum committees have just handed in their signature sheets at the Federal Palace, one against the Covid 19 law and the other against the anti-terror law, which will be put to the vote on 13 June. There will be enough time until then to form an opinion. It should be noted here that despite the restrictions on public life that are necessary at the moment, direct democratic activities are continuing. 
Today, we can turn to the pleasing fact that already in the first days of the new year, there are more and more voices among entrepreneurs and politicians of various hues who want to break off the negotiations on the framework treaty with Brussels and realign the relations of sovereign Switzerland with the EU on an equal footing. It is refreshing to see how even active politicians are stepping out of their party boxes and speaking their own minds. That’s how it should be!

Growing opposition to the Framework Agreement
from Swiss entrepreneurs …

The successful defence of British interests vis-à-vis Brussels1 has set enormous movements in motion in Switzerland. While the Federal Council is stonewalling and waiting for the “clarification” of the well-known “three points” (wage protection, EU citizenship directive, state aid) by the gentlemen in Brussels, many Swiss entrepreneurs are joining forces, giving the lie to those who have been claiming for years that without a framework agreement the bilateral path would be exhausted and the Swiss business location would collapse. 
  There is the business association autonomiesuisse (a counter-movement to economiesuisse, whose claim to be the sole representative of “the Swiss economy” is increasingly crumbling), which went public in November. Autonomiesuisse has about 350 members so far, including many well-known business personalities, and several FDP members sit on its board. In its argumentation, the organisation states unequivocally: “The discussion about the framework agreement revolves around side issues, while the main thing is forgotten: it would mean the end of Swiss sovereignty and the loss of attractive economic framework conditions. We dispel myths and show seven fatal consequences for Switzerland as a business location.”2 [emphasis mine] Reading these seven consequences, each set out on a fact sheet, is recommended for anyone who wants to grasp more precisely the connection between Switzerland’s successful business centre and the independent, direct-democratic Swiss model.
  In its media release of 15 January, autonomiesuisse summarises its position succinctly: “The present framework agreement would mean an irrevocable transfer of power to Brussels and subordination to the EU Court of Justice (ECJ). This would endanger Switzerland as a successful model with its competitive framework conditions.” The entrepreneurs call on politicians to “rethink the relationship with the EU”, for example with the further development of the bilateral agreements and the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) of 1972 (which secures EU market access for Swiss enterprises).3
  Now the Partners Group entrepreneur network is also speaking out again, which was presented in Current Concerns of 28 October 2020.4 Entrepreneur Alfred Gantner and managing director Philip Erzinger introduce the association Allianz Kompass/Europa in the “Tages-Anzeiger”, which also fights the framework agreement and has 250 supporters “from trade unionists to farmers to larger companies”. He does not believe in the “theory of eroding bilateral agreements without a framework agreement”, says Gantner, “because the EU has just as great an interest in regulated relations as Switzerland”.5
  Allianz Kompass/Europa is aiming for “a kind of Brexit-plus treaty”, says Philip Erzinger: “With a big plus, because we already have a free trade agreement and functioning bilateral treaties.” In order to protect our people’s rights, says Gantner, he is also prepared to accept the expected marginal loss of growth, because with the framework agreement “we are so in the hands of the EU that it would be more consistent to become a member of the EU straight away”.
  Incidentally, there are also top representatives of mega-corporations who think this way and say so, at least after their retirement. Oswald Grübel, former CEO of CS and UBS, recently answered the question of what conclusions he would draw for Switzerland from the agreement between Great Britain and the EU: “For me, the free trade agreement shows that Switzerland does not need a framework agreement with the EU. It should not submit to the dictates of the European Court of Justice without necessity.”6

… and in politics:
FDP Council of States member Thierry Burkart shows profile

The sensational newspaper commentary by former FDP Federal Councillor Johann Niklaus Schneider-Ammann in September 2020 entitled “Framework Agreement: Three clarifications are not enough. The question of sovereignty must be addressed”7 has unblocked many sovereignty- and freedom-loving Swiss – especially in his own party. The UK’s successful negotiations with Brussels have contributed to this. 
  Particularly noteworthy is the statement of Thierry Burkart, a member of the Council of States of Aargau and an FDP politician of the younger generation. On 14 January, he called for the negotiations with the EU to be broken off8 and thus set things in motion – initially in his party. For the Free Democratic Party. The Liberals has so far, at least outwardly, been practically united behind the Framework Agreement and the Federal Council’s conduct of the negotiations. Council of States member Thierry Burkart noted two main points of criticism in his commentary:

  • “The dynamic adoption of law, coupled with the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in dispute settlement between Switzerland and the EU, considerably curtails our sovereignty.” In the event of a dispute, the ECJ would ultimately decide. It could judge political decisions of the parliament or the people if EU law is even marginally affected. The loss of sovereignty means “ultimately less co-determination” for every citizen. 
  • The Framework Agreement would not be a “further development of the bilateral path.” Because as a result of the comprehensive guillotine clause, there would in fact be no way out of the Framework Agreement for Switzerland, “unless we join the EU”. 

Thierry Burkart, member of the Council of States, concludes that from the point of view of a “sovereign state in which the electorate is used to have the final say”, the price for updating the market access agreements would be “clearly too high”. The framework agreement is therefore “not capable of gaining majority support as it is”.

A fresh start would do no harm

Burkart calls on the Federal Council to break off the negotiations: “Breaking off negotiations would do less damage to the credibility of the Federal Council than if our negotiating delegation continued to pretend that this agreement was good and right and could somehow be pushed through by the people and the cantons.”
  According to Thierry Burkart, a new start would not be detrimental to the country’s future either, because the great openness to the world of Switzerland and its economy would remain. The free trade agreement of 1972 and the bilateral agreements with the EU could be further developed even without a framework treaty. Burkart concludes his statement with the words: “As between Great Britain and the EU, neither a unilateral adoption of law nor the court of the other party as arbitrator of disputes is needed. All that is needed is the mutual will to have good relations that benefit people here and there”.

Other FDP politicians endorse Thierry Burkart’s statement

The clear position of the Aargau member of the Council of States went down badly with the majority of the FDP parliamentary group – such as party president Petra Gössi and National Councillors Kurt Fluri and Christa Markwalder. However, the CH media of 16 January 2021 also mention a whole series of FDP parliamentarians who, like Burkart, “reject or are sceptical about the role of the European Court of Justice in dispute settlement”. These  namely include members of the Council of States Martin Schmid and Thomas Hefti as well as members of the National Council Maja Riniker, Marcel Dobler, Peter Schilliger and Christian Wasserfallen. Council of States member Andrea Caroni, vice-president of the FDP, is also “not among the flaming advocates of the treaty”.9 As already noted, several FDP members have also joined the autonomiesuisse entrepreneurs committee. 
  The “yes to reason” that the FDP parliamentarians had decided to give on the framework treaty in February 2019 was, some now note, based on overly positive ideas. (The Federal Chancellery had only put the text of the treaty online in German in mid-January 2019, and no one had been able to grasp in so short a time what is packed into it, formulated in bureaucratic EU style). In the FDP foreign policy programme there is nothing to be read about the framework treaty, but it is virtually included in the following sentence: “The FDP was the only party to always advocate the bilateral path with the EU without any ifs and buts, but rejects both EU or EEA accession and an isolationist policy.” ( In reality, most other parties are, in principle, also in favour of the bilateral path with the EU, but many politicians, entrepreneurs and citizens do not want to accept everything that Brussels has planned for Switzerland “without ifs and buts”. FDP Council of States member Burkart also clearly explains that renouncing the framework treaty formulated by Brussels does not mean “isolation”. 
  As far as EU accession is concerned, some FDP politicians seem to have forgotten that they were very much in favour of it not so long ago (and that even today they are prepared to accept a treaty with the EU that would possibly force Switzerland to join in a few years’ time). For example, National Councillor Christa Markwalder who rebuked her parliamentary group colleague Thierry Burkart with extraordinarily harsh words: 
  “Such sniper actions are useless in terms of domestic policy and harmful in terms of foreign policy.” [According to, the German word for sniper, “Heckenschütze”, is “pejorative: someone who shoots at people from ambush”]. According to Markwalder, breaking off the negotiations would be “foolish, because what Switzerland has achieved so far - for example, the arbitration court for settling disputes – is very good.”10 Is that so, indeed! 
  Christa Markwalder was president of the European Movement Switzerland (Nebs) from 2006 to 2014. On assuming the presidency on 7 May 2006, Markwalder said, according to the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”, that: “after a decade of bilateral negotiations, it was now time to pursue a more offensive European policy again. The Federal Council’s report on Europe would be a good opportunity to discuss Switzerland’s EU membership in greater depth.”11 The impression this left is still lingering today.

SGB (Swiss Trade Union Federation) president Pierre-Yves Maillard takes up Thierry Burkart’s demand

Another surprise followed just one day after Burkart’s statement. Pierre-Yves Maillard, president of the Swiss Federation of Trade Unions and SP National Council member, echoed his liberal parliamentary colleague’s call for the negotiations to be broken off: “We want to preserve autonomous wage protection and the public service. The agreement jeopardises these concerns. That is why we have always said that it would have little chance before the people. We say that it would be clearer and more honest to seek a complete restart of the negotiations.”
  Even earlier, the trade union leaders (including Adrian Wüthrich of Travail.Suisse) had stipulated the safeguarding of Swiss wage protection and the public service as conditions for their approval of the contract formation with the EU. But so far Maillard had not so clearly mentioned a restart of the negotiations as an option. The sovereignty issue in the agreement was “very difficult”, Maillard said. Britain’s treaty with the EU, in which the ECJ plays no role, shows that there are other possible solutions.12

Prospect for 2021

This is an encouraging start to this new year in the Swiss EU discussion. It is not a break-off of friendly relations with the EU that is in the offing, but a dignified conclusion by the Federal Council to a draft treaty that was blueprinted in Brussels and never suited Switzerland. This would be a much better way for the Federal Council to express its solidarity with the people than if they were to sign a treaty that would then be dumped in parliament or, at the latest, in the referendum. It was well that we were able to first wait for the conclusion of the negotiations between London and Brussels, which now gives us new momentum. And it is good that there are so many of us, citizens, politicians, entrepreneurs, who do not want to give up the Swiss model.    •

1 cf. Wüthrich, Marianne. “The dinosaurs got wiped out, but the hedgehogs are still around”, in: Current Concerns No 30 of 5 January 2021
2 “Sieben Gründe für ein besseres Rahmenabkommen” (Seven reasons for a better framework agreement)
3 autonomiesuisse. “Rahmenabkommen EU-Schweiz: Rückhalt bröckelt auf breiter Front. Jetzt müssen die politischen Akteure die Beziehung zur EU neu denken” (EU-Switzerland Framework Agreement: Support is crumbling on a broad front. Now the political actors must rethink the relationship with the EU). Media release of 15 January 2021, signed by the Steering Committee of the Co-Presidency, Dr Hansjörg Bertschi, Prof. Dr Martin Janssen and Dr Hans-Peter Zehnder
4“Rahmenabkommen Schweiz-EU: Lieber die Verhandlungen würdig beenden …” (Switzerland-EU Framework Agreement: Better to end the negotiations in a dignified manner …)
5 Alich, Holger. “Widerstand gegen Rahmenabkommen. Mit Bernhard Russi und Kurt Aeschbacher gegen den EU-Vertrag. Gespräch mit Philip Erzinger und Alfred Gantner” (Resistance to the Framework Agreement. With Bernhard Russi and Kurt Aeschbacher against the EU Treaty. Interview with Philip Erzinger and Alfred Gantner), Tages-Anzeiger of 16 January 2021
6 Zulauf, Daniel. “Jetzt werden die Zahlen richtig astronomisch. Interview mit Oswald Grübel” (Now the figures are getting really astronomical. Interview with Oswald Grübel), St. Galler Tagblatt of 4 January 2021
7 Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 19 September 2020
8 “FDP-Ständerat fordert Übungsabbruch beim Rahmenabkommen: ‘Der Bundesrat sollte gegenüber der EU ehrlich sein’. Gastkommentar von Thierry Burkart” (FDP Councillor of States calls for abandonment of practice on the Framework Agreement: ‘The Federal Council should be honest with the EU’. Guest commentary by Thierry Burkart) in: Aargauer Zeitung of 14 January 2021
9 Benini, Francesco. “Schweiz-EU. Dafür oder dagegen? Das Rahmenabkommen mit der EU entzweit die Freisinnigen” (Switzerland - EU. For or against? The Framework Agreement with the EU divides the Free Democrats), in: Aargauer Zeitung of 16 January 2021.
10 ibid.
11 “Christa Markwalder ist neue Nebs-Präsidentin” (Christa Markwalder is new Nebs president), in: Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 8 May 2006
12 Benini, Francesco. “Verhandlungen mit EU abbrechen. Gewerkschaftspräsident Pierre-Yves Maillard unterstützt die Forderung von FDP-Ständerat Thierry Burkart” (Break off negotiations with EU. Trade Union President Pierre-Yves Maillard supports the demand of FDP Council of States member Thierry Burkart), in: St. Galler Tagblatt of 15 January 2021

Our website uses cookies so that we can continually improve the page and provide you with an optimized visitor experience. If you continue reading this website, you agree to the use of cookies. Further information regarding cookies can be found in the data protection note.

If you want to prevent the setting of cookies (for example, Google Analytics), you can set this up by using this browser add-on.​​​​​​​