Borderline Behavior

The Holes in the Swiss-EU Relationship

A sign at the Swiss French border with town of Ferney Voltaire in Le Grand-Saconnex near Geneva, February 10, 2014.
A sign at the Swiss French border with town of Ferney Voltaire in Le Grand-Saconnex near Geneva, February 10, 2014. (Denis Balibouse / Courtesy Reuters)

It is not often that small and peaceful Switzerland makes headlines across Europe. But it did earlier this year, when the Swiss voted by a narrow margin (50.3 percent) to amend their constitution so that the federal government could regulate immigration from neighboring European countries. According to the amendment, the Swiss government has three years to draft and enact such regulations. If it follows through, the days of unrestricted labor movement -- a requirement for Switzerland’s continued bilateral relationship with the European Union -- will be over. No wonder, then, that across Europe, national leaders and observers decried Switzerland’s cherry-picking in its treaties with the European Union and condemned its efforts to build new walls across the continent.

In the run-up to the vote, Switzerland’s major economic associations rallied against the amendment, warning of the economic consequences. For one, reintroducing quotas on immigration would undermine the European promise of free movement of people, labor, services, and capital. In fact, the move would nullify one of Switzerland’s foundational agreements with the European Union -- the free movement of people -- and, with it, many other pacts under the Bilateral I treaty -- the treaty that governs air and road traffic, agriculture, trade, public procurement, and science, among other things -- thanks to that agreement’s so-called guillotine clause, which maintains that the cancellation of one bilateral treaty nullifies all the others. If that happens, it will harm Switzerland’s export-oriented economy in the long run. And there are short-term consequences as well. Just after the referendum, the European Union canceled negotiations with Switzerland over the country’s inclusion in the EU research agenda.

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