BERN: Switzerland on Wednesday called off years of talks with the European Union aimed at sealing a cooperation agreement with Bern’s largest trading partner, in a move which angered Brussels.
Brussels and Bern have spent more than a decade discussing a so-called framework deal, which would rejig five major agreements within a patchwork of 120 accords that govern non-EU member Switzerland’s relations with the surrounding bloc.
But Swiss President Guy Parmelin said that the 13 years of talks had hit the end of the road, in a move which could jeopardise relations with the EU, which had made no secret of its impatience to nail down a deal.
Parmelin went to Brussels in late April for talks with EU chief Ursula von der Leyen, but the pair made no headway on resolving a range of sticking points
The two sides hit an impasse after the EU refused to budge on demands from Parmelin to exclude key issues relating to state aid, wage protections and freedom of movement from the pact.
In a statement, Switzerland’s Federal Council government said it reviewed the outcome of those talks on Wednesday.
“There remain substantial differences between Switzerland and the EU on key aspects,” it said.
“The conditions are thus not met for the signing of the agreement.”
The move brings the negotiations to a close, the statement said.
There is concern that failing to secure the framework deal might rock Switzerland’s relationship with the EU.
Around half of all Swiss exports go to the bloc, which all but surrounds the landlocked country, while two-thirds of Switzerland’s imports are from the EU.
Among other points, the ditched agreement covered access to the single market and fine-tuning applicable Swiss and EU laws.
The overarching deal would have required revising the agreements on free movement, industrial standards, agriculture, air and land transport — and the creation of a joint arbitration court that could settle differences and enable compensation for breaches.
Since 2008, the EU has insisted Switzerland must sign the agreement before concluding any new bilateral deals, with negotiations getting underway in 2014.
For Brussels, those talks concluded in 2018, but the Swiss continued to press for changes and repeatedly put off signing.
The European Commission — the EU’s executive branch — hit out at Bern’s move.
The commission said the EU-Swiss Institutional Framework Agreement was essential for an enhanced future relationship.
“We regret this decision, given the progress that has been made,” the European Commission said in a statement.
It said the deal’s core purpose was “fundamentally a matter of fairness and legal certainty”.
“Privileged access to the Single Market must mean abiding by the same rules and obligations.”
The commission said relations between the EU and Switzerland were already not up to speed with where they should be.
“Without this agreement, this modernisation of our relationship will not be possible,” it added.