The decision by the Swiss government to end years of negotiations about its future relationship with the EU has unsettled the country’s researchers. Swiss science organizations have warned that the move could jeopardize research ties with the bloc, potentially threatening its participation in programs like Horizon Europe and the Erasmus + student exchange.

On May 26, the Swiss Federal Council spoke out against the signing of an agreement to strengthen relations with the EU. The institutional framework agreement (InstA) was the result of seven years of bilateral discussions with the aim of modernizing Switzerland’s relations with the bloc.

The situation has raised fears that the country could again be locked out of the EU’s research funding mechanisms. While Switzerland has been participating in European framework programs as an associated country since 2004, its status was downgraded between 2014 and 2016 after it refused to extend freedom of movement to Croatian citizens after Croatia’s accession to the EU.

“Switzerland is obviously not a member of the EU, but a whole series of around 120 bilateral agreements makes it as close as possible to the internal market,” explains Georg Riekeles, deputy director of the think tank European Policy Center, who previously served as diplomatic advisor to the EU – Chief Negotiator for Brexit, Michel Barnier.

InstA would have replaced these existing agreements and aligned Swiss and EU laws in several areas, including free movement of people, traffic and trade. The EU viewed the agreement as essential to ensuring fair access to the single market, but ultimately disagreements over the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and unemployed residents’ rights to state aid led the Swiss to reject the terms.

“No new agreements”

Before the Swiss decision, the EU foreign affairs team stated that “no new agreements may be concluded with Switzerland and the existing agreements may not be updated” without the framework agreement. It added that EU-Switzerland relations “will simply erode over time” if existing agreements are not modernized. “I read this whole matter in such a way that there has been a crisis from which there is no easy way out. I think it’s a dead end now and that will have consequences, ”says Riekeles.

The letter from the Federal Council to the President of the European Commission ending the negotiations states that he is relying on both parties to continue to apply the [existing] bilateral agreements complete ”and expects these to be updated“ in accordance with relevant changes in EU law ”. However, Riekeles points out that on the same day that the Swiss government abandoned negotiations, Switzerland lost access to the internal market for medical devices because the agreement on the mutual recognition of their trade was not updated with the entry into force of the new EU regulations . “Machines and chemicals are next in line, and so economies will gradually decouple in a number of areas.”

Riekeles notes that the political ramifications could affect other areas not covered by the InstA deal. While Swiss participation in the Horizon Europe program, which comprises 96 billion euros (82 billion pounds sterling), is not legally linked to InstA, association agreements have yet to be concluded. Riekeles believes that the current political situation could lead the EU to rethink its approach.

“Of course, research cooperation is win-win, but here you have to look at the bigger picture,” says Riekeles. “I think it is very difficult for the EU – when the Swiss have left the table during the institutional framework negotiations and withheld their financial contributions – to say: ‘Well, actually it doesn’t matter – we just turn the’ On the other hand, we can You can still be part of our research program. “

“The decision to join Switzerland in Horizon Europe will lead to political debate in the Commission, the Council and the European Parliament – but there are strong arguments in favor of saying: ‘Okay, there is no balance in this relationship and there can be don’t just go on like this. “as before.” ‘

The future of research in Switzerland is in the air

In its statement on the exit from the InstA deal, the Federal Council reiterated that, in its view, it is in the interests of both parties to ensure, for example, in research cooperation that “no inadmissible political connections are established”.

In a Q&A on European research programs, however, the Federal Department of Education and Research admits: “What this decision means for Switzerland’s association with the EU framework programs for research and innovation cannot currently be assessed.”

Further concerns were expressed by Swiss researchers about what the situation means for future collaboration. The Swiss Science Council coordinated an open letter signed by many other European research councils, highlighting the mutual benefits of scientific cooperation between Switzerland and the EU and expressing the hope that “new ways will be found to overcome this difficult one.” Overcoming the situation and clarifying the relationship “. He noted Switzerland’s contributions as an associated country to earlier EU research programs and warned of the consequences of any weakening of Swiss engagement.

“A downgrade of Switzerland to a third country would severely limit the contribution of its expertise to the Horizon Europe projects to cope with the global challenges of today and tomorrow,” write the signatories. “We are convinced that this would lead to a lose-lose situation that endangers successful cooperation in strategic areas and ultimately the [European research area] as a whole.’

Swissuniversities, the umbrella organization for Swiss universities, also issued a statement stating that the decision not to sign the framework agreement represented “another phase of uncertainty” for the country’s universities.

“In the coming months, the course will be set for participation in the Horizon Europe research programs. The EU has clearly signaled that it regards a framework agreement as a prerequisite for Switzerland’s participation, ”it said. The swissuniversities statement added that any threat to the country’s participation in Horizon Europe or the Erasmus + student exchange program could weaken the country’s competitiveness and damage its reputation as a top research location. “Against this background, swissuniversities calls on the Federal Council to explain how it intends to counteract this risk and to establish relationships with the” [European] Union in the long run. ‘

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