The EU shows teeth – Federal Councillor Cassis stands firm

Recent developments in Swiss EU policy

by Dr iur. Marianne Wüthrich

A few days after the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council (FAC-N) travelled to EU headquarters, Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis met with EU Commissioner Maroš Šefčovic, Switzerland’s new contact person, on 15 November. In their subsequent statements to the media, both maintained their position, Federal Councillor Cassis with dignified composure, the EU Commissioner in his usual commanding tone, lacking any understanding of the Swiss state model. Meanwhile, Swiss EU turbos are making a new attempt to get the supposedly urgently needed electricity agreement out of the drawer, and the head of the Department of Defence, Federal Councillor Viola Amherd, is eyeing military cooperation with the EU within the framework of the “Permanent Structured Cooperation” (PESCO).

The FAC members of the National Council were not exactly received accommodatingly in Brussels. They were snubbed because Brussels did not even want to recognise the release of the cohesion billion by the parliament as a contribution to détente.

Remarkable words of the NEBS President

Particularly noteworthy is the clarity with which SP National Councillor Eric Nussbaumer complained about the EU Commission’s “power play”. Nussbaumer is President of the “New European Movement Switzerland NEBS”, which campaigns for Switzerland’s accession to the EU. Nevertheless, he said in Brussels that “it has ‘ideological overtones’ when Brussels [...] regards Switzerland’s desire to associate with Horizon Europe as cherry-picking”. After all, Switzerland is also contributing money to the programme, and research cooperation is of mutual interest. With such an attitude, says Nussbaumer, Brussels is not doing itself any favours, because it is also scaring off the pro-European forces in Switzerland.”1 A wise realisation – better late than never.

Like fire and water

The statements by Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis and EU Commissioner Maroš Šefčovic in two separate interviews after the 15 November meeting were like fire and water.
  The EU Commissioner “gave Switzerland the tariff at the meeting”, noted the “Tages-Anzeiger”.2 This is what Šefčovic really tried to do: Until the WEF in January, he called for a “quick start”, a “roadmap” for the solution of the four “key questions”, namely “a dynamic adoption of law, state aid, dispute settlement and a mechanism for regular cohesion fund contributions”. In response to the interviewer’s comment: “So the old disputes that caused the Framework Agreement to fail ...”, Šefčovic replied: “They have not disappeared into thin air. If we want a perspective, we have to solve these important disputes.” The EU had been patient with Switzerland for a long time, but now it finally needed “legal clarity and predictability”.3
  Federal Councillor Cassis, meanwhile, was unimpressed by his opponent’s brisk course: “Negotiations are not an issue at the moment. We are dealing with highly political issues, not technical ones. When the Federal Council broke off the negotiations on the Framework Agreement in May, it did not do so with the intention of starting negotiations again straight away.” First and foremost, he said, it was about getting to know each other and initiating a political dialogue. “We had a good and open exchange”, said Federal Councillor Cassis, “Maroš Šefčovic gave me the impression of an attentive contact person with a pragmatic attitude.” (Tages-Anzeiger of 19 November 2021)

“There is no command issuing and no command receiving between the EU and Switzerland”

Asked whether Switzerland would meet the “deadline” by January, Ignazio Cassis replied: “A deadline was not an issue during our talks.” And he added: “There is no command issuing and no command receiving between the EU and Switzerland. Each side represents its interests and each side communicates its wishes. The Federal Council knows the EU’s wishes. They are not new.” In response to the comment that listening to him and Mr Šefčovic gave the impression that they had not participated in the same conversation, Federal Councillor Cassis replied: “What he communicated afterwards had relatively little to do with our meeting.” (Tages-Anzeiger of 19 November 2021)
  This statement makes one prick up one’s ears: Is the same EU Commissioner, who apparently showed himself willing to talk in private, acting outwardly as a tough mouthpiece for the hardliners in the Commission and the EU Council? Fortunately, we Swiss have a hard “skull”. We will not be so unwise as to let Brussels impose a “framework” on us that does not suit us.

Electricity agreement with the EU does not bring security of electricity supply

The long-term supply of electricity is a problem that we will not be able to avoid solving, and this does not only apply to Switzerland. A few very smart people are taking advantage of this situation to convince the Swiss population that we absolutely need an electricity agreement with Brussels in order to maintain our security of electricity supply. With this in mind, an interpellation4 is on the agenda of the Council of States for the winter session, to be discussed on 2 December.5 Council of States member Benedikt Würth (CVP/Die Mitte SG) justifies his interpellation as follows: “The electricity situation is urgent and cannot be delayed”. His first question to the Federal Council was accordingly: “Does the Federal Council share the view that a de-blocking of the stalled electricity negotiations is in Switzerland’s interest?”
  To this end, it must be made clear: The fact that an electricity agreement with the EU is supposed to bring more security of electricity supply does not become any truer through frequent repetition. Despite this, however, EU turbos continue to use this link undeterred. In turn, even Federal Councillor Simonetta Sommaruga, head of the Federal Department of the Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications (DETEC) and one of the two Federal Councillors who wanted to stick to the negotiations on the Framework Agreement in May this year, admits: “However, an electricity agreement would not mean that we would automatically have enough electricity. All countries need more electricity.”6 In other words: If, for example, Germany shuts down its nuclear power plants and stops producing coal, it will need its own electricity and will be able to supply Switzerland with less or no electricity in the event of an electricity shortage in winter – with or without an electricity agreement. Council of States member Würth also knows this. So, what is his interpellation really about?

Electricity agreement is out of the question for democratic and legal reasons

From Switzerland’s point of view, integration into the EU electricity market is out of the question; it would almost certainly be rejected in the inevitable referendum.
  Council of States member Benedikt Würth reveals with his third question that his real aim is to crack popular resistance to EU law: “Can the Federal Council imagine offering a dispute settlement mechanism as well as the regulation on state aid along the lines of the failed Framework Agreement for a specific electricity agreement with the EU?”
  In plain language: via an electricity agreement, the hammers are to be forced on the electorate, which is precisely what they do not want:

  • dispute settlement mechanism = obligation to accept the case law of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), including the adoption of EU law (because the case law of the ECJ concerns the application of EU law)
  • regulation on state aid = ban on cantonal and communal subsidies and shares in power plants, i.e., compulsion to privatise Swiss power plants, almost all of which are currently in the hands of the cantons and communes. For according to Article 107/108 of the Treaty on European Union, state aid is “incompatible with the internal market”. Above all, this would hand over the precious treasure of our hydropower to the EU internal market, i.e., it would be sold off to the highest-bidding foreign corporations. And in the event of a dispute, the ECJ would probably not rule in favour of the village in Valais or Graubünden that wants to keep its power plant.

The clou of the Würth interpellation: “The balancing of interests between a reduction in sovereignty and added value in terms of security of supply and the marketing of Swiss electricity can be well and practically communicated and discussed in terms of domestic policy.” Here the strategy is being delivered to pull the wool over the people’s eyes: If we don’t want to freeze in winter, we’ll just have to bite the bullet and give up our sovereignty (including ownership of the power plants). In return, we are allowed to sell and buy our electricity via the EU grid.
  In reality, the Swiss electricity grid has long been interconnected with the grid of the EU states. For example, Axpo7 has been investing in wind power in northern Germany for years, and our neighbouring states will be so happy to have Swiss pumped-storage plants in the future when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. In other words: the EU is not only highly interested in North-South transit on the roads (overland transport agreement), but also with regard to the electricity grid – but hardly anyone talks about this.

What is Switzerland doing in the EU military project PESCO?

As every year, the ETH study “Security 2021” finds that “Support for Swiss neutrality remains unchanged and is almost unanimously supported by the respondents.”.8 In view of this clear popular will, the eager efforts of the Federal Council and part of parliament to integrate Switzerland into military alliances are a constant source of annoyance. In addition to the NATO Partnership for Peace (PfP), in which Switzerland has been marching along for a long time without the consent of the people, the Federal Council is also recently considering participation in the EU military project PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation), which was established in 2017.
  On the homepage of the German Federal Ministry of Defence you will find more details about PESCO, for example that “the European armed forces [!] [...] will be made more compatible in terms of organisation and equipment so that they can jointly assume responsibility for security and defence policy”. Or that the signatories have undertaken to “regularly increase their defence budget and gradually increase investment spending for defense equipment to 20 per cent in the medium term”. The relationship between PESCO and NATO is not entirely clear: “The military cooperation between EU members complements that of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.”9 As if NATO had not already caused enough damage! Incidentally, the targeted upgrade is not exactly climate-friendly either ...
  And in this monumental EU military programme with 46 projects, neutral Switzerland should absolutely be part of it according to the wishes of the head of the Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sport (DDPS), Viola Amherd? To this end, she was recently invited to a meeting of EU defence ministers in Brussels – what an “honour”! “For Germany, which initiated the concept, it is about creating an ‘army of Europeans’”, says the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”, and it continues: “Switzerland would hardly go that far". Amherd, however, praised the Framework Nations Concept in Brussels as a platform that promotes multinationalism in the field of security and defence.”10
  In which areas DDPS head Amherd envisions military cooperation with the EU, she did not want to reveal to the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”. On the other hand, she announced very candidly that “any legal adjustments were not necessary. The military partnership with the EU in no way calls into question Switzerland’s requirement of neutrality, since there can be no question of deploying troops”. This astonishing point of view not only ignores the direct democratic rights of the citizens, but also shows a peculiar view of Swiss neutrality: It cannot be that the Federal Councillor believes that all activities except a war effort by the Swiss army meet the requirement of neutrality.  •

1 Steinvorth, Daniel. “Schweizer Parlamentarier sind enttäuscht von der EU” (Swiss parliamentarians are disappointed with the EU). In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 11 November 2021
2 Walser, Charlotte. “Was er kommuniziert hat, hatte relativ wenig mit unserem Treffen zu tun” (What he communicated had relatively little to do with our meeting). Interview with Ignazio Cassis. In: Tages-Anzeiger of 19 November 2021
3 Israel, Stephan. “Ich möchte schnelle Ergebnisse. In einem Jahr können wir viel erreichen”. (I want quick results. We can achieve a lot in one year). Interview with EU Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovic. In: Tages-Anzeiger of 17 November 2021
4 With an interpellation, a member of the Parliament requests information from the Federal Council on a federal domestic or foreign policy matter. The Federal Council answers the interpellation in writing, the author can request a discussion on it (in this case in the Council of States).
5 “Deblockierung der Stromverhandlungen mit der EU” (Deblocking the electricity negotiations with the EU). 21.4042 Interpellation
6 Walser, Charlotte; Häne, Stefan. “Frau Bundesrätin, gehen in der Schweiz demnächst die Lichter aus?” Interview mit Simonetta Sommaruga. (Madam Federal Councillor, will the lights go out in Switzerland soon? – Interview with Simonetta Sommaruga. In: Tages-Anzeiger of 27 October 2021
7 The energy group Axpo Holding is 100% owned by the cantons of north-eastern Switzerland and their cantonal utilities. It supplies around 3 million people and several thousand businesses.
8 ETH Zürich. Center for Security Studies. Security 2021. Foreign, Security and Defence Policy Opinion Shaping Trends 22 June 2021
10 Steinvorth, Daniel. “Die Schweiz will sich am EU-Militärprojekt PESCO beteiligen” (Switzerland wants to participate in the EU military project PESCO). In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 21 October 2021

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