Reuters | Aug 19 2010
Swiss say prefer bilateral trade deals to EU membership
By JASON RHODES | REUTERS
BERNE, Aug 19, : Switzerland will continue to pursue bilateral trade agreements with the European Union for the time being rather than joining the trading bloc as a member state, the Swiss government said on Thursday.
Switzerland’s traditions of independence and direct democracy pose problems to its dealings with the EU, which attracts 60 percent of Swiss exports, and the Alpine country has so far preferred to negotiate deals on specific areas of trade.
This bilateral approach to trade deals still provided the country with wiggle room to win concessions but EU expansion is making it harder to negotiate as the number of EU members grows, said Economy Minister Doris Leuthard, who also holds the one-year rotating presidency.
"The government discussed joining the European Union but we decided that at this moment the best instrument to represent Swiss interests remains bilateralism," Leuthard said at a joint news conference with Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey.
"When this is no longer the case, we will have to reconsider our position."
The Swiss government remained set against Switzerland automatically adopting new EU laws, Leuthard added.
The country is already a member of the European Free Trade Association, but Berne decided to put EU accession talks on hold in 1992 after voters decided against joining the European Economic Area in a referendum.
Many commentators saw the 2005 referendum in favor of Switzerland joining the Schengen area of 25 European countries which allow travelers to cross borders between members without controls, as an indication the Swiss could be softening their stance against possible EU accession.
The government was not ruling out EU membership in the longer term, said Calmy-Rey.
"It is not a question of whether or not to join the European Union, it is a question of how best to defend Swiss interests at this moment in time," the foreign minister said.
For the meantime, Switzerland would work toward new bilateral agreements on REACH chemicals regulation, introduced by the EU in 2007, and cooperation with European competition authorities, Leuthard and Calmy-Rey said.
Diplomats would also start preliminary discussions to try and set a framework for talks on the EU’s code of conduct on corporate taxes, though it was still too early to tell whether the government would judge full-blooded negotiations to be in Switzerland’s interest, they said.