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Switzerland: The referendum’s consequences for higher education and research cooperation

The referendum on the Swiss federal popular initiative Against mass immigration on 9 February showed a voting result of 50.3 % in favour of the initiative; as a result, Swiss participation in the EU framework programmes Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ is not only at stake but has been for the moment shelved, with far reaching consequences for cooperation in higher education and EU-Swiss relations. The current situation has left many open questions which ACA will try to address.

What are the legal consequences of the referendum outcome?

The proposal for the federal popular initiative was launched by the conservative Swiss People’s Party, aiming for a modification of the Swiss constitution in order to allow for the country to regulate immigration independently by setting up annual immigration contingents. This, however, represents a breach of contract of the agreement on freedom of movement between the Swiss Confederation and the European Union, signed in 1999. The European Union and Switzerland have signed a body of bilateral agreements, which are all equally linked to each other through a so called guillotine clause. This implies that if any of the treaties are terminated, all other treaties will be also automatically terminated. Consequently, the voting result of the referendum on 9 February threatens the fundaments of EU-Swiss relations, as the Swiss government is now obliged to implement the outcome of the referendum within a timeframe of three years.

Why does the voting outcome seem to have immediate effect on Switzerland’s participation in Erasmus+ and Horizon2020?

In light of Croatia’s accession to the European Union this year, the Swiss government planned and was supposed to sign a protocol which would extend freedom of movement to Croatian citizens. The Swiss Federal Council, however, has informed Croatian and EU authorities that they have not yet concluded whether the protocol can be signed due to the results of the referendum on 9 February. A decision on this matter is likely to be taken by April 2014. As a reaction to the Swiss postponement of granting freedom of movement to Croatian citizens, EU authorities have suspended current negotiations on Swiss participation in the framework programmes Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020, which were supposed to reach an agreement this year. This, in turn, has an immediate effect on Swiss participation.

How does the interruption of negotiations on Swiss participation in Erasmus+ and Horizon2020 affect Switzerland?

There are no problems concerning Framework programme7 (FP7) projects and Erasmus students in the current academic year. However, problems for the next academic year 2014-2015 might arise as Switzerland will most likely not be part of the Erasmus+ programme. As other third states it will, however, be able to participate in global actions under the Erasmus+ programme which are likely to be launched in 2015. According to the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research (EAER) is currently working with stakeholders on alternative scenarios in order to ensure staff and student mobility and preferably full-fledged Swiss participation in Erasmus+.

Switzerland will not receive a status as associated country for the Horizon2020 framework programme. Consequently, Swiss entities are not excluded from participation of Horizon2020 projects but will only be treated as third country entity. Their participation within a consortium for a call will not count towards the required minimum number of participants in a given project. Moreover, Swiss entities will not be able to take part in European Research Council calls. Individual researchers with Swiss citizenship, however, are eligible for European Research Council grants if employed by a legal entity located in an EU or associated state. The same is valid for Marie Sklodowska Curie actions (MSCA) – individual Swiss researchers are still eligible, although Swiss entities are ineligible for MSCA host-driven actions like Innovative Training Networks (ITN) or Research and Innovation Staff Exchanges (RISE).

What are the prospects for the near future?

At this point any predictions on upcoming developments are difficult and of rather speculative nature. The European Commission has made clear in a number of statements that freedom of movement is a non-negotiable EU core principle. Should Switzerland follow up on the implementation of the new regulations, the EU and Switzerland would have to start new negotiations on the previously concluded bilateral agreements. With 1.2 million EU citizens residing in Switzerland, i.e. 23.4 % of the Swiss population, and 250 000 cross-border commuters, the EU is keen to defend EU citizens’ interests. Although 450 000 Swiss citizens live and work in the EU, equally benefiting from the agreement on freedom of movement, the Swiss right to a self-regulated immigration policy was perceived to outweigh the advantages of freedom of movement for the proponents of the initiative. Yet, the proponents' margin was relatively low with 0.34 % in favour, i.e. 19 526 votes with a voter turnout of only 55.8 %. Christian Levrat, President of the Social Democratic Party of Switzerland announced that he would like to call for a new popular vote on the future of bilateral treaties with the EU.

Swiss representatives have repeatedly underlined the fact that other countries do benefit from an association status in EU framework programmes or some parts of the internal market principles without having to sacrifice their right to a self-determinated immigration policy. Turkey has been able to participate in the Erasmus programme, FP7 and has been part of the European Union Customs Union for the free movement of goods without ever being granted freedom of movement for its citizens. Liechtenstein, part of the European Economic Area (EEA), has been granted special conditions which allow for immigration quotas – clearly in breach of the EU’s sacred cow, the principle of freedom of movement for people.

In the end and in spite of repeated affirmations of appeasement, the EU and Switzerland are both flexing their muscles to have it their own way.

European Commission - Statement

European Commission - Swiss participation in Horizon2020

Swiss federal popular initiative Against mass immigration (in German)

Agreement on freedom of movement between Switzerland and EU/EFTA (in German)

State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation - Swiss participation in Erasmus+ (download)

State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation - Swiss participation in Horizon2020 (download)