The position of Switzerland in Europe

Can Switzerland find its way?

by Dr rer. publ. Werner Wüthrich

Great Britain recently left the EU and concluded a comprehensive free trade and cooperation agreement with Brussels. Switzerland, in turn, broke off the protracted negotiations on a framework agreement with the EU, as this included the adoption of EU law, subordination to its jurisdiction and more, which would certainly have been rejected in a referendum. This begs the question of what to do next. Taking a look at our common history with Great Britain can provide an answer. Current now, as it was then, is the latent interference of the USA in the affairs of us Europeans. – In the database of Swiss diplomatic documents (dodis), events are well documented, even up to quite recent times.1

In the mid-fifties, the project of the European Economic Community (EEC) was under discussion. Jean Monnet – strongly allied with the USA – was one of the main initiators. The guiding idea was to unite the European countries in an “ever closer union” – that is, with a political superstructure that we see realised today in the EU. Jean Monnet often spoke of a future “United States of Europe”. At the same time, however, there was also talk of another project. Europeans might come together as sovereign states and work together in a free trade area.

US opposition to the liberal path

The liberal path found friends in many countries – but not in the US government. Swiss Minister Albert Weitnauer (State Secretary of the Federal Council) reported on talks in the OEEC, the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation (founded in connection with the Marshall Plan). In this body, the USA had vetoed a free trade area (

Switzerland’s situation –
the founding of EFTA

It was clear to the Federal Council that Switzerland would not be able to participate in an EEC aiming for an “ever closer union” with a corresponding political superstructure. Hans Schaffner, delegate for trade agreements, became active on behalf of the Federal Council. In 1957 he invited interested parties from various countries sceptical about the EEC concept to Geneva. They came from Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Austria and Great Britain. It was here in Geneva that the concept of EFTA was conceived, the European Free Trade Association, which was then founded in 1960. EFTA planned to further expand free trade cooperation, also with the EEC countries (

Massive interference
by the US government

On 14 July 1961, a US Secretary of State visited Federal Councillor Friedrich Traugott Wahlen and Hans Schaffner, who had meanwhile also been elected Federal Councillor, and informed them of the following: The presidents of the USA and Great Britain had met. The USA would never tolerate an economic treaty between the EEC and EFTA, but expected the NATO countries within EFTA to join the EEC as soon as possible – first and foremost Great Britain, then also Denmark, Norway and Portugal. Subsequently the three neutral countries, Switzerland, Austria and Sweden, were to start negotiations with Brussels and individually conclude association treaties with the EEC that would support the political aims of the EEC. – This was outrageous, as many a person in the Federal Palace stated (

Wahlen explains the Swiss model

In the autumn of 1962, the Council of Ministers in Brussels invited the Federal Council to a hearing. President Wahlen was given the opportunity to explain Switzerland’s principles and to report on its preparatory work. The Federal Council had convened several working groups to work out Switzerland’s position on the various economic issues. Central to this was the presentation by Jean Rudolph von Salis, who explained the significance and the implications of neutrality, federalism and direct democracy in an overall context (, pp. 36-50).

The text of the speech prepared by Wahlen and approved by the Federal Council as a whole is now available ( In the first part, Wahlen provided detailed information on Switzerland, its economy and its state structure. Among his remarks was the following impressive passage:
     “[…] In the agreement to be reached with the Community, Switzerland must however preserve its neutrality, which is the protection of its independence, as well as its domestic structure of federalism and its direct democracy. Direct democracy, federalism and neutrality have shaped the political face of Switzerland. They have grown out of its polymorphism and have given it a political stability which, as it would seem to us, has had a favourable effect on its relations with third countries.”

Objection by
President Charles de Gaulle

There was, however, one European leader who watched the US activities with growing displeasure: French President Charles de Gaulle vetoed Britain’s planned entry into the EEC. If Britain joined the EEC, the USA would dominate political events in Europe even further than it already did, he correctly objected. France would become less important.
    De Gaulle’s veto brought a breathing pause. Negotiations were put on hold. US pressure on Switzerland to conclude a political association treaty with the EEC was abated. EFTA recovered. It still consisted of the same founding members, including Great Britain. As planned, they completed tariff dismantling in step with the EEC in the 1960s – so that in 1971 the step towards a joint free trade agreement was no longer a big one.

1972 Free Trade Agreement –
link with Europe

On 22 July 1972, the Free Trade Agreement between the EEC and the EFTA countries was signed. President Brugger (head of the Federal Department of Economic Affairs) gave a speech at the signing ceremony in the Palais d’Egmont in Brussels in the very first sentence of which he pointed out the importance of its state policy foundations for Switzerland (
    “The agreement between Switzerland and the European Communities, which I have the honour to sign today on behalf of the Federal Council, represents a decisive step in our traditional endeavour to cooperate in the integration of our continent, insofar as we are able to do so while respecting direct democracy, parliamentary powers and neutral foreign policy.”
    On 4 December 1972, the referendum was held. 72 per cent of the voters and all cantons clearly said yes to the treaty.

Great Britain and Switzerland
go their separate ways

Switzerland’s 1972 Free Trade Agreement was further developed, with over 100 additional treaties supplementing it over the years. It laid the foundation for a long and successful bilateral path. Today, goods worth more than CHF 1 billion cross the border between Switzerland and the EU every day.
    At the same time, on 1 January 1973, Great Britain joined the EEC – in line with the USA. – After a variety of experiences, the British left again on 31 January 2020 after 47 years – after a referendum (2016) and after a heated political debate. Almost all media in Europe spread a gloomy picture of Britain’s future “outside Europe” and painted its economic decline to come in black colours. Things turned out differently.

EU Free Trade Agreement with
Great Britain – on an equal footing

The UK signed a trade and cooperation agreement with the EU2 on 30 December 2020, which finally came into force on 21 May 2021. This includes a comprehensive free trade agreement of over 2000 pages, which regulates economic cooperation with the EU in detail. The agreement does not only cover trade in goods and services. Other areas in the interest of both parties are included. A Joint Partnership Council ensures that the agreement is properly applied and interpreted. The arbitration procedure is regulated clearly. – Anyone who still has the gloomy pre-Brexit forecasts of the future in their head is amazed at this careful, tailor-made treaty that regulates free cooperation between the EU and the UK. All the points of contention that prevented the conclusion of the EU’s framework agreement with Switzerland, such as the adoption of laws, subordination to the EU Court of Justice, the free movement of persons with the Union Citizens Directive, are not included in this agreement. So this is possible. One gets the impression that the British have achieved something they already strove for in 1960 when they founded EFTA together with Switzerland.

We Swiss have as much reason
to carry our heads high as the British have

Both countries, Switzerland and the UK, have concluded a detailed free trade and cooperation agreement with the EU. The framework agreement, which would have tied Switzerland strongly to the EU politically, has proved to be a dead end from the beginning. Continuing and updating the Swiss Free Trade Agreement (and possibly the Bilaterals) is therefore the logical next step.
    The UK is paving the way. If the Swiss negotiators in Brussels get stuck at any point, they can consult the British treaty. The EU cannot actually deny the Swiss what it has granted the British. Switzerland is in a good negotiating position anyway: it is a very good customer of the EU countries and provides the important north–south connection at very favourable conditions. It will certainly ensure success if Swiss negotiators present themselves with this attitude and, like previous negotiators, take the principles of statehood to heart. – We will remember this on 1 August.

Dubious role played by USA

Conclusion: The USA with its dominant role has significantly shaped and steered European events since the Second World War. In the 1950s, they prevented a free trade area within the OEEC, then quite decidedly demanded the dissolution of EFTA and urged its members to join the EEC or sign an association treaty. That was pretty “strong stuff”.
    It was also perceived as such in Bern. In a document classified as strictly confidential, Paul Jolles, head of the so-called Integration Office in the Federal Administration, on 23 July 1963 reported to the Federal Council on a conversation with the head of the Policy Planning Board of the American State Department as follows: “My interlocutor unreservedly holds the well-known American view that nation-statehood in Europe is historically obsolete and that political unification seems inevitable if Europe is to continue to play a role in world politics.” Jolles’ message to Federal Councillors Wahlen and Schaffner ended with the following personal remark: “The conversation left me with the impression that the State Department braintrust has lost touch with reality when it comes to Europe.” (
    The USA was obviously pursuing geopolitical goals: The European countries were to form a unified bloc in the EEC and Nato – against the Soviet Union. Switzerland was also put under massive pressure. De Gaulle’s “drum beat” saved EFTA and its idea of a free way of cooperation in Europe – at least for the time being.
    The United States’ “style” described above can also be observed today. The USA is interfering in Europe’s politics in a similar way. They launched a “blitzkrieg” against Russia with massive economic sanctions and demanded that European countries rally behind them as a unified bloc. This blitzkrieg has largely failed. But it is the European countries in particular that are getting into difficulties because of these sanctions. – Unfortunately, there is no Charles de Gaulle in sight today.
    Like de Gaulle, the Swiss negotiators of yesteryear wanted a Europe of sovereign states whose policies would “coax the European fire to burn”, as Albert Weitnauer once put it ( One example: In 2014, Switzerland chaired the Vienna-based OSCE, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. As Swiss intelligence officer Jacques Baud reports today, the Swiss delegation proposed at the time that Ukraine should organise itself federally and that its regions should have extensive autonomy, similar to the cantons in Switzerland. As a neutral, multilingual country, it could have maintained good relations with both the West and the East. This idea found its way into the two Minsk agreements that France and Germany negotiated together with Russia. – Today, unfortunately, these agreements are history, as others set the agenda. •

1The online database “Dodis” contains thousands of digitised documents on Switzerland’s international relations since 1848, mainly from the Swiss Federal Archives. Fascinating are, among others, minutes of internal discussions of the Federal Council with members of the governments of other states or reports on what was happening in the Federal Parliament, which was not reported at the time. These documents were strictly confidential at the time and are now – thanks to dodis – publicly accessible. – This research work began as early as 1972 and has been online since 1997.
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