Switzerland as a research and training center and the EU bureaucracy

A little more self-confidence would be a good thing for Switzerland

by Dr iur Marianne Wüthrich

Switzerland is one among those countries which can boast a high quality and a great variety of research and, at least for the time being, of education. Ever since the industrialisation, its lack of resources has forced the Swiss to provide special services so as to give our small country some importance as a business location. Cooperation with neighbouring countries and other states is a matter of course for Switzerland, in particular also in the fields of science and research, so that it has always been a tradition for Swiss universities and their research teams to take part in international projects. That is why Switzerland has also recently taken part in many EU research and education programmes. In recent years, however, it has become evident that an uncomplicated collaboration on an equal footing is hardly possible on the grounds of EU bureaucracy.

Great was the indignation among students and lecturers of Swiss universities, when, on 26 February 2014, the EU commission suspended Switzerland’s participation in the research programme Horizon 2020 and in the education programme Erasmus+ as a means of exerting pressure on Switzerland after its referendum on the mass immigration initiative of 9 February 2014. Even though this EU approach was untenable from a legal point of view, emotional reactions in Switzerland were not directed against this EU decree, but against our own electorate. And that even though it was all the while clear to everyone that the confederation would not leave our researchers and students in the lurch.

Horizon 2020 based on the Research Agreement of the Bilateral Agreements I

Swiss research institutions have been involved in the research undertaken by the European community since 1978. Since 1988, Swiss research institutes have been participating in the EU research framework programmes. Until 2003, Swiss participation in the project was directly financed by the Federal government.
Today’s research agreement between Switzerland and the EU is one of the seven Bilateral I agreements, which were accepted by the Swiss people on 21 May 2000 and have been in force since 1 June 2002. As of 2004, therefore, Switzerland took part in the EU research framework programmes as an “associated state” and not as a so-called “third country”. Consequently, Switzerland was subject to EU regulations and made a compulsory contribution to the EU’s overall budget. When submitting project proposals, Swiss researchers had the same rights as their peers from EU member states and could also receive funding directly from the EU.
Today’s research programme Horizon 2020 will run from 2014–2020. The EU will provide a budget of totally around 80 billion euros for this time – a huge amount which will have to be paid by the participating states including Switzerland.1 As agreed, Switzerland was involved in Horizon 2020 from 1 January 2014.

Partial exclusion of Switzerland from Horizon 2020 is against the law

On 26 February 2014, the EU suspended Switzerland’s full participation in Horizon 2020 with the following reasoning: “A full association was blocked by the European Commission following the adoption of the initiative ‘Against Mass Immigration’ and Switzerland’s omission to sign Protocol III on the extension of the free movement of persons to Croatia. Switzerland’s participation after 2016 depends on whether or not it complies with Protocol III until 9 February 2017.”2
Such a linkage of Swiss participation in EU research programmes and a Swiss national vote leading to the postponement of a protocol signature is against the law. The much-quoted “guillotine clause” is, in fact, valid for the 7 Bilateral Agreements I – and these include the Research Agreement – but it is clearly and unambiguously defined: “The seven agreements (...) are (...) to cease to apply at the same time, six months after the receipt of a non-renewal or denunciation notice concerning any one of them.”3
As everyone knows, the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons (AFMP) was not denounced after the acceptance of the mass immigration initiative by the Swiss electorate. The new constitutional Article 121a merely contains a request to the Federal Council and the parliament to implement its content with a federal law and to renegotiate AFMP if the EU does not agree with this implementation. A denunciation not being discussed on the part of Switzerland and – as we understand from well-informed circles – neither on the part of the EU.
That is why the EU is not entitled to de facto terminate the Research Agreement or any other bilateral agreement. Neither is Switzerland’s deferment of the ratification of the Free Movement Agreement with Croatia a reason for punitive measures. Such delays are common in diplomatic life, so for instance in the EU’s treatment of its membership aspirants; and they do not signify a fundamental “No” to a provision.
On 17 June 2016, Parliament in Berne in turn made the ratification of the Croatia Protocol conditional on “the existence of a provision for the control of immigration in the agreement with the European Union, which is compatible with the Swiss legal system”.4 That is, it is still not clear how things will go from here. In its dealing with a friendly state, the EU would be well advised to embark on a renegotiation of the free movement agreement with Switzerland rather than breaking existing agreements.

EU cannot do without Swiss top research

In reality, Brussels cannot do without the participation of the high-quality research at Swiss universities and other institutions. This is why the European Commission has thought of a remarkable triage: Switzerland is to retain the status of an associated state in the most important research areas, the so-called “the Excellent Science pillar”.5 In all other parts of Horizon 2020, it is arbitrarily downgraded to the status of a non-associated third country. If Switzerland does not ratify the free movement agreement with Croatia until 9 February 2017, so the EU Commission, Swiss research institutions will be considered as third country entities.6 This, however, sounds worse than it actually is.

Direct funding by the federation is more efficient and cheaper

As early as on 24 June 2014, the Federal Council adopted transitional measures for the participation of Swiss researchers in cooperation projects within Horizon 2020. They are now funded directly by the Confederation: “In the framework of the conditions for third countries, researchers from Switzerland should be able to participate in various activities preferably in the same way as if Switzerland were to be associated with the EU research framework programmes.”7
What more could one want? The Confederation is organizing research cooperation with foreign countries itself as before Bilateral I, and stays in control of funding. In addition, things will be significantly cheaper if Swiss contributions do not go the long way round through Brussels balance sheets: If Switzerland were again involved in the EU programmes from 2017 onwards, the federal expenditure would increase massively. In its estimate for 2017, for example, the Federal Financial Administration expects an increase in expenditure on “Applied Research” from 1.374 billion to 1.571 billion Swiss francs, i.e. an increase by 14.4 per cent (!): “The strong increase in 2016 (+198 million) can largely be explained by higher contributions to EU research programmes (+120 million). The Federal Council is expecting a reconfirmed full implementation of Horizon 2020 as of 1 January 2017. […]”8 [emphasis by Current Concerns]
The same rule applies here as everywhere else: the larger and more complex the organization, the higher the costs.  Economist Professor Mathias Binswanger writes: “Research funding à la EU has turned a part of research into employment programmes, where management and controlling of research are increasingly replacing research. This is because an increase in size and complexity of the projects and in the number of research partners causes the bureaucratic burden to increase disproportionately.” Binswanger concludes: “If you also consider the factor of bureaucracy, national funding in Switzerland will function much better and more efficiently.”9

The termination of Erasmus+: Unlawful EU action with a wide impact

Erasmus – today Erasmus+ – is   an EU funding programme that awards scholarships  at universities abroad, and in which Switzerland is contractually involved. The exclusion of Switzerland by the EU Commission was a deliberate provocation, which was sure to lead to reactions against the Swiss national decision on the immigration question in student and lecturer circles even abroad: On 20 February 2014 (when the European Commission had already publicly announced its decision of 26 February), 300 students buried Erasmus and Horizon 2020 symbolically on the federal square in Berne. In an online appeal “Not without Switzerland” signed by more than 30,000 persons, the VSS (Association of Swiss Students10), The Swiss National Science Foundation and other organisations, painted the future of Switzerland as an education and research location in the darkest colours.11 Actually, these theatrical demonstrations soon turned out to be quite unnecessary.

Erasmus has nothing to do with the Bilaterals I

Switzerland’s exclusion from Erasmus + should be described as much “more unlawful” than its partial exclusion from Horizon 2020 – if an escalation of the adjective “unlawful” were possible. For the agreement regulating Swiss participation in the EU education programmes was only concluded as a result of the Bilaterals II.12 The Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) writes: “Within the framework of the Bilaterals II, only a political declaration of intent was made about the participation of Switzerland in the EU Education programme 2007–2013. The corresponding agreement was signed on 15 February 2010.”13 The Erasmus + follow-up programme will apply from 2014 onwards.
Interestingly, a link to the “guillotine clause” in the event of termination of the 1999 Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons was effectively smuggled into Article 3 (2) of the 2010 agreement: “In the event of the expiry or termination of the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons of 21 June 1991 between the Swiss Confederation on the one hand and the European Community and its member states on the other, the agreement under consideration will not be extended.” But this extremely odd clause was not noticed at the time, because the Federal Council kept it below radar level. Otherwise, the serious question would have come to the voters’ mind of how the Swiss Federal Council came to sign an agreement which was to be automatically dissolved if an earlier treaty was rescinded.

Without Erasmus +: Confederation takes over costs – also for foreigners ...

Switzerland had also taken part in the EU educational programmes already a long time before the signing of the Bilaterals I and II. Since 1992, it participated “indirectly”, which means it paid the scholarships for its students abroad itself. And since the EU excluded it in violation of the contract, it has been doing this again. When Councillor of States Felix Gutzwiller anxiously asked in his interpellation of 19 March 2015: “What effects will the treatment of Switzerland as a third country have in practice?” the Federal Council’s convincing reply regarding Erasmus + was: “The transitional solution is intended to facilitate the continuation of the activities of those organizations which have been participating so far. With the transitional solution, Switzerland takes over the funding for all activities of Swiss nationals in other European countries, and – in contrast to the other countries in the programme – also for those participants from the EU who come to Switzerland for a student exchange, for a vocational internship or for cooperation projects.”14 [emphasis by Current Concerns]
Now, is this not very generous on the part of Switzerland? But then it is well known that one should not pay back in kind.

... yet nevertheless the status of “third country” is also cheaper and more effective here

The Federal Council continues: “The transitional solution allows, however, a more flexible prioritisation, and the resources expended correspond to the effective participation, which would not necessarily be the case with a renewed full association and the fixed contribution to the EU associated therewith. However, the conditions and the financial effort necessary for a full-fledged association cannot be named at present because the negotiations are currently suspended.” [emphasis by Current Concerns]
Does it all make sense? If Switzerland remains in charge of its own affairs, it will pay at least only for those foreign students and interns who actually spend time at a Swiss university. The fixed contribution to the EU, on the other hand, would be a lot higher and it would not be known exactly what the money was being used for. It is up to each reader to consider the usefulness of this or other agreements with the EU.     •

1    Federal Department of Foreign Affairs FDFA, Directorate for European Affairs DEA, “Faktenblatt Forschung vom September 2016” (Factsheet Research from September 2016) www.eda.admin.ch/content/dam/dea/de/documents /fs/08-FS-Forschung_en.pdf
2     ibid.
3     FDFA, Bilaterale I. (Bilaterals I) www.eda.admin.ch/de/index.php/de/home/europapolitics/overview/bilaterale-1.html
4     State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation SBFI. Horizon 2020: Beteiligung von in der Schweiz tätigen Forschenden, Einreichung von Horizon 2020 Gesuchen bei der Europäischen Kommission 2016–2017. (Horizon 2020: Involvement of researchers working in Switzerland, submission of Horizon 2020 requests to the European Commission 2016–2017. Updated information from 17 August 2016)
5     This pillar includes the scholarships of the European Research Council (ERC), the Marie-Skłodowska-Curie measures, the Future and Emerging Technologies (such as the Human Brain Project of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne) and research infrastructures. See FDFA, Fact Sheet Research, September 2016
6     European Commission, Swiss participation in Horizon 2020, version June 2016
7     Medienmitteilung des Bundesrates from 25 June 2014. “Horizon 2020”: “Unterstützung für Forschende in der Schweiz” (Federal Council media release. “Horizon 2020”: support for research workers in Switzerland)
8     Federal Financial Administration. 16.041  Botschaft zum Voranschlag 2017 from 24 August 2016, p. 81/82 (Report on the estimated budget 2017 of 24. August 2016)
9     Binswanger, Mathias, professor of economics. “Europa. Bürokratie statt Forschung.” (Europe. Bureaucracy instead of research.) Weltwoche No. 30/31.2016
10     What a ghastly gender neologism!
11     http://www.not-without-switzerland.org
12     0.402.268.1 Agreement between the Swiss Confederation and the European Union establishing the terms and conditions for the participation of the Swiss Confederation in the “Youth in Action” programme and the Lifelong Learning Program (2007–2013) from 15 February 2010, in force since 1 March 2011
13     https://www.eda.admin.ch/dea/en/home/europapolitik/ueberblick/bilaterale-2.html
14.     15.3212 Interpellation of Felix Gutzwiller from 19 March 2015. Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020. Switzerland as a third country