Switzerland’s Government Tries to Head Off Criticism of EU Talks

(Bloomberg) — Switzerland’s government tried to get ahead of criticism of any new deal agreed with the European Union, saying it will include protections for local interests.

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The comment, made as the executive approved a negotiating mandate, is a response to concern that the government will make too many concessions to secure a deal. The Swiss People’s Party, the largest in parliament, has already accused the government of “dishonesty” and said it will fight any increase of EU influence over Switzerland.

The talks, which aim to streamline an existing patchwork of agreements, are set to start in early 2024. They follow a dramatic collapse of previous negotiations in 2021 when Switzerland pulled out of a potential deal, damaging relations between the closely-linked economies.

The new attempt will cover areas such as electricity and food safety, free movement of people and Swiss contributions to EU social funds. For Switzerland’s government, the focus is to ensure access to the bloc’s market, where the country sells most of its exports.

To address immigration concerns, the government said that the EU will grant an exception that immigrants are only eligible to claim Swiss unemployment benefits after five years. That was agreed by negotiators in exploratory talks, Switzerland’s top immigration official, Christine Schraner Burgener, said at a press conference Friday.

The government now has to consult cantons and foreign-policy lawmakers on the mandate, so it might still change before negotiations start.

“There is no free movement” for European Union citizens, said Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis. “We stick with the free movement of workers.”

He also said there are no red lines. Asked whether everything was negotiable, he said: “Exactly.”

Under the Swiss direct-democracy system, the government will probably have to put any agreement with the EU to a national vote.

The European Commission said in a statement that it will mirror Switzerland’s step in the coming days and consult on its own negotiating mandate.

It also said that a document of understanding “sets out a broad and balanced package of measures that will support the modernization and further development of bilateral relations.”

–With assistance from Myriam Balezou and Paula Doenecke.

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