In a completely arbitrary manner and in violation of the treaty, Brussels is currently denying Switzerland the rights laid down in two Bilateral I agreements. The research agreement allows Swiss researchers to participate in the European research framework programmes with equal rights; Switzerland has been an associated state since 2004, granting it the right to participate in all programmes. The “Mutual Recognition Agreement” (MRA) allows entrepreneurs intending to sell industrial products abroad to complete the required certification or approval processes only once. This is time and money saving and ensures equal opportunities.
As a high-quality research and production site, Switzerland is keen on joining any changes to the EU regulations within these two agreements. Obviously aware of this, Brussels bureaucrats therefore focus on harassing in this area, albeit – as we will see – a number of EU member states themselves will be suffering if research and trade with Switzerland are made more difficult. Swiss Plans B are already in action. What is the current state of affairs?
Exodus of good researchers to other countries?
In May 2021, not long after the Federal Council had broken off negotiations with the EU on a framework agreement, the EU Commission (EC) downgraded Switzerland – immediately and without any legal context – to a “non-associated third country” with regard to participation in the “Horizon Europe” research programme. At least implicitly, the Federal Council criticised Switzerland’s exclusion: “Swiss participation in the EU-Framework Programme for Research and Innovation is part of the first series of bilateral agreements between Switzerland and the EU that entered into force in 2002. However, the EU views the question of Switzerland’s association with Horizon Europe in the light of overall relations between Switzerland and the EU.”1 “In the light of overall relations”? What a strange interpretation of contract compliance!
On 23 January, the three heads of the university association swissuniversities, the ETH Board and science-industries (chemical, pharmaceutical and life sciences trade association), passed a resolution urging the Federal Council to “take all necessary measures” to ensure that Switzerland “by 2022 will be fully associated with ‘Horizon Europe’ again”. According to the resolution without full association with “Horizon”, “Switzerland’s position as a research and development site will lose much of its appeal”. And further: “There is a risk that both researchers and spin-offs2 will be migrating abroad, where they can apply for EU funding.”3
Migrating abroad? They won’t believe that themselves. In fact, since the freedom of movement agreement with the EU, the opposite has happened. Due to the favourable working conditions and the excellent reputation of Swiss research, for the past twenty years far more professors and students have been streaming into Switzerland than leaving it. According to a report on Radio SRF the other day, this is also the case today (see box “Young researchers stay in Switzerland despite luring EU funding”). Meanwhile, the spin-offs supported by our universities – hundreds of them by the ETH alone, i. e. by the Swiss Confederation! – are obviously just as successful in obtaining funding in Switzerland.4
Plan B for participation in “Horizon Europe”
My research has brought to light: Plan B for Switzerland’s participation in the Horizon framework programmes is ready to go, and federal funding is in place.
Funding: In December 2020, the National Council and the Council of States already approved a sum of over CHF 6 billion for Switzerland participating in EU research programmes (2021-2027).5
Responding to my question about the organisation of the “Plan B”, National Councillor Franz Grüter, newly President of the “Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council (FAC-N)”, stated as follows: “Efforts are currently underway at various levels in the sense of supplementary and substitute measures for the temporary non-association to ‘Horizon Europe’.” He referred to the Federal Council’s media release of 20 October 2021 entitled “Horizon package 2021-2027: Federal Council enables direct financing and examines further measures”. It lays down:
Comment: Why Switzerland prefers to remain without EU integration
Obviously, the EU Commission is pursuing no other goal than to bully Switzerland – “zleidwerche” [Swiss term for to harm somebody] is the term we call it here. But we won’t succumb to it: Until now, we have done very well with the various Plans B, which have always been inventive and suitable for everyday use.
Let us listen to the entrepreneurs’ organisation “autonomiesuisse”, which together with many others contributed to the break-off of the negotiations on the framework agreement: “In international rankings, Switzerland is one of the top workplaces – thanks to our open mindedness, our economic freedom and our innovative strength. With close institutional ties to the EU and subordination to the European Court of Justice, Switzerland would have to adopt EU law to a large extent. Economically and politically, Switzerland would become increasingly aligned with the EU. Direct democracy and federalism would be gradually eroded.” (https://www.autonomiesuisse.ch/de/)
Further remarks on the subject of open-mindedness
There are many other countries in the world with which Swiss researchers can and want to cooperate. National Councillor Franz Grüter: “In addition to these measures, strengthening international research and innovation cooperation with other important research centres is a priority of our Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research (EAER).” He mentioned the Memorandum of Understanding between Switzerland and the USA to expand their cooperation: This was signed on 19 November 2021 by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and the US National Science Foundation (NSF), in the presence of President Guy Parmelin.6
While searching for this news item, I came across the fact that Swiss researchers also conduct joint projects (Joint Research Projects) with partners in numerous other countries, for example in Latin America, Africa and Asia: “In the period from 2017 to 2020, more than 100 joint research projects were supported [with the participation of the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs and the Swiss National Science Foundation]. Based on their success to date, the bilateral programmes will be continued in 2021–2024.” (SERI. Bilateral cooperation programmes) Good to remember that there also exists a world outside the European Union. •
1 SERI. Research and Innovation. Horizon Europe and Euratom (https://www.sbfi.admin.ch)
2 Spin-offs are independent companies founded, for example, with financial support from ETH Zurich in order to turn research results into marketable products. (https://ethz.ch/de/wirtschaft/entrepreneurs/spinoff.html)
4 List of ETH spin-offs. https://ethz.ch/en/industry/entrepreneurs/spinoff/uebersicht-eth-spin-offs.html.
5 Bundesbeschluss über die Finanzierung der Schweizer Beteiligung an den Massnahmen der Europäischen Union im Bereich Forschung und Innovation in den Jahren 2021–2027 (Federal Decree on the Financing of Swiss Participation in European Union Actions in the Field of Research and Innovation in the Years 2021-2027), 16 December 2020
6 “Schweiz und USA bekräftigen ihre Zusammenarbeit in der Forschungsförderung.” (Switzerland and the USA reaffirm their cooperation in research funding), Press Release of the Federal Council 19 November 2021
mw. Radio SRF’s “Rendez-vous” programme on 1 February 2022 featured two young scientists who were recently awarded the coveted “ERC Starting Grant” for their research work, along with 26 other researchers in Switzerland. This is a grant of up to 1.5 million euros (per person!) for a period of five years from the “Horizon Europe” research programme, which is awarded by the ERC (European Research Council). However, because Switzerland was excluded from “Horizon”, Swiss researchers do not receive the money from Brussels, but from the federal treasury.
In a radio conversation with two of the winners, it is confirmed that Switzerland’s expulsion from “Horizon” is not a reason for young people to emigrate to an EU country. Neurobiologist Anissa Kempf, assistant professor at the Biocentre of the University of Basel, received the Starting Grant for her research on the molecular basis of sleep. The fact that she doesn't get the prize paid out by Brussels doesn’t bother her: “The only thing that will change is where the money actually comes from.” That’s why Anissa Kempf has decided to stay in Switzerland, adding: “If I didn't have the job at the Biocentre here and the research environment at the Biocentre wasn’t so fantastic, I might have changed my mind.”
Likewise, the lawyer and economist Elliot Ash from the USA, who holds a professorship at the Center for Law & Economics at ETH and researches on artificial intelligence, also wants to stay in Switzerland. He is glad that “his project is supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation with the same budget and duration”.
“But the Swiss solution also has disadvantages,” says interviewer Irène Dietschi. An ERC grant offers a researcher the opportunity to “move internationally”. In reality, both Anissa Kempf and Elliot Ash received several offers from foreign universities, so they could have easily “moved internationally” and collected their grant in the corresponding EU country, for example in Sweden, which tries to lure Swiss award winners to its universities. The sparrows are whistling it from the rooftops: top Swiss researchers and their projects are still in demand – all the punitive actions of the EU Commission cannot prevent that.
Only two of the 15 grant winners Irène Dietschi contacted want to move to an EU country. Precisely: they also find infrastructure and nice colleagues in Switzerland. It’s good when they realise that all the fuss about the “higher prestige” in EU countries is humbug and that the “resources” in the form of 100-franc notes are no worse than euro notes.
Source: Dietschi, Irène. “Nach Horizon-Aus: Kampf um Schweizer Forschende”
(After Horizon-end: Fight for Swiss researchers). Radio SRF, Rendez-vous from 1 February 2022. Editor: Daniel Hofer
mw. Just as being contrary to the contract – and just as embarrassing – as the unsuccessful attempt to withdraw Switzerland from the European research community is the vexatious decision of the EU Commission of 26 May 2021, according to which certificates for medical technology products issued in Switzerland would no longer be recognised – even retroactively.1 With regard to Brussels – this is catch-22. Because such violations of the Bilateral Agreements with Switzerland also harm some EU-states, including our big neighbour Germany. In order to ensure the supply of high quality medtech products from Switzerland for the German health care system, the highest health authorities of the Federal States analysed the new EU Medical Devices Regulation (MDR) and concluded that according to EU law the Swiss certifications had to be valid until 24 May 2024 at the latest. The Swiss products could therefore continue to be sold in Germany. This was communicated on 25 January 2022 to the interested German industry associations, much to the displeasure of the EU Commission. The latter insists that the German imports are “not in conformity with the rules”. In any case the letter should be “merely a draft of a letter from a working group of the federal states”. This was “not a binding letter” so the chief spokesperson of the EU Commission according to SRF News.2
Pretty arrogant, the people in the Brussels bureaucracy! An official letter of the highest health authorities of the German Federal States is dismissed as a mere “draft of a working group”? In contrast the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” criticises, for once refreshingly, “the fact that Brussels, in its increasingly dogmatic attitude towards Switzerland loses sight of the economic interests of the member states”. But at some point, the author warns, the member states will “refuse to obey the directives”. The EU member states “continued to have a vital interest in stable economic relations with Switzerland”, and it would “serve no one’s interests if patients from the EU because of new bureaucratic obstacles had to forego optimal health care”.3
BDI: Maintain and strengthen a traditionally very good relationship to the southern neighbour
The Federation of German Industries (BDI), too, does not want to and cannot do without good economic relations with Switzerland. In its brochure “To reshape the partnership with Switzerland” of 19 January 2022 it draws attention to the already considerable economic disruptions in trade with Switzerland, currently in the area of medical products, further disruptions were foreseeable in mechanical engineering. The BDI reminds: “Many SMEs, but also large companies from Germany and Switzerland have maintained intensive economic relations for many years.” Germany is the most important economic partner of Switzerland which is the fourth most important trading partner for the EU. “It is therefore of particular interest to the German economy that this traditionally very good relationship with our southern neighbour will be maintained and strengthened.”
So far, so good. But then the BDI calls on both sides to “quickly resume constructive talks”, whereby a “package solution” is indispensable, this “should not leave out the institutional key issues”.
This reminds me of the remark made by Swiss National Councillor Franz Grüter, who with other members of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council visited Brussels a few months ago to talk to EU parliamentarians. Even the EU- turbos among the National Councillors came back rather disillusioned. Franz Grüter described his impression to me as follows: “Most of them do not understand our system, in which the people decide. They are not interested in the cohesion billion, they insist that we take over their law and their administration of justice. They don’t understand that we Swiss want something different.”
How can we explain to our neighbours that Switzerland has its own political culture?
1 See “Switzerland in Europe and the World. News from Parliament and the Federal Council”. In: Current Concerns from 14 October 2021
2 “Schweizer Medtech-Produkte: EU pocht auf Export-Verbot” (Swiss medtech products: EU insists on export ban). SRF News, 28 January 2022
3 Fuster, Thomas. “Ein Sieg der Vernunft: Deutschland will Schweizer Medtech-Produkte weiterhin anerkennen” (A victory for common sense: Germany wants to continue to recognise Swiss medtech products. In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 26 January 2022.
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