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8th Mar 2021

Swiss eyeing EU research money despite referendum

Switzerland is pushing to be 'de facto' accepted in multi-billion EU programmes on science, research and education, but the European Commission says it would be illegal after an anti-migration referendum which put EU-Swiss ties on ice.

On Thursday (12 June), representatives of the Swiss government officially acknowledged that a referendum held in February and seeking to cap migration from EU countries goes against an EU-Swiss agreement on freedom of movement. They also told the EU commission they want to renegotiate the agreement once the referendum is translated into law.

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  • Anti-immigrant initiatives have been a recurrent theme in Swiss-EU relations (Photo: Swiss People's Party)

The agreement is linked to other co-operation areas - such as science and research (Horizon 2020) and the Erasmus exchange programme for students and academics.

The EU already suspended Switzerland's participation in the two schemes, but Bern wanted to first assess the impact of the February referendum which obliges the Swiss government to impose quotas on EU workers within three years.

The Thursday acknowledgement, according to an EU commission spokeswoman, "confirms the EU’s concerns as expressed in reaction to the vote. It is for the Swiss government to decide how it intends to follow-up on these findings."

So far, Bern has not formally asked to renegotiate the freedom of movement agreement (FMPA).

"The commission has no intention of renegotiating the FMPA with the objective of introducing quotas and national preference. Quantitative limits and national preference are contrary to our treaties. Negotiating them is not an option for the commission," EU commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said Thursday.

Meanwhile, the Swiss are pushing to be give a 'de facto' participation in the Horizon 2020 scheme, under which Swiss researchers were set to receive €1.8bn in funding.

The Erasmus co-operation is less of a priority because Swiss universities can still have bilateral exchange programmes with EU universities and because it more affects EU students studying in Switzerland rather than Swiss students abroad.

One argument is that cutting funding for science and research programmes and education is hitting the wrong people - students and academics were not in favour of capping freedom of movement.

Another argument is that Switzerland has been paying into cross-border projects like Iter - the France-based attempt to create energy from nuclear fusion - and it might stop when cut out of Horizon 2020.

But for the EU commission, there is no legal way to restart science funding unless Switzerland extends freedom of movement to Croatia, the EU's newest member.

Following the February referendum, Switzerland was unable to sign a treaty with Croatia - complete with transitional periods for Croatian workers. Croatia got a "de facto" arrangement instead, which is not legally binding and which in theory could be scrapped by a new government in Bern.

Swiss observers point out that governments "hardly ever change" in their country and that this is the best the government could do given the legal obligations under the referendum.

They note that Switzerland has had a long-time issue with freedom of movement, with multiple referendums and attempts to prevent it.

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