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Swiss researchers see deal in sight for re-admission to EU research programme

Crucial vote to settle long-running dispute on immigration could see scientists fully welcomed back into Horizon 2020

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Swiss researchers believe their country is set to resolve a row over immigration restrictions and regain full reinstatement of a bilateral agreement with the EU, including full access to Horizon 2020.

Switzerland was locked out of the research and innovation programme when it voted in a 2014 referendum to implement immigration quotas for neighbouring EU countries – a violation of the bloc’s principle of free movement of people.

On Friday, after almost three years of agonising over a way to reconcile EU and national demands, lawmakers are expected to back what is being referred to as a light – or weak – interpretation of the vote, which merely stipulates job vacancies are advertised first in Switzerland before any hiring from abroad.

If the proposal passes, European Commission officials privately say they will give Swiss researchers, the most active non-EU participants in EU research projects, full access to Horizon 2020 again. A formal reaction is not expected until next week.

“So far the deal looks OK,” said Nic Alexakis, chief executive officer with the Swiss Biotech Association in Brussels. “By [signing it], we can have full membership of the Horizon 2020 programme, which is vital for Swiss innovation.”

“Yes, we are optimistic,” said Olivier Küttel, head of European public affairs with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. “It’s about the last mile in the political process and we are very confident that we will make it. But you certainly know that every single political process has an unpredictable part.”

Switzerland has market access to the EU while retaining a degree of sovereignty. It allows EU citizens to take up jobs and reside in the country without a special permit. That looked like it would change when the anti-immigration Swiss People’s Party, sponsored a measure to impose quotas on EU nationals. It passed by fewer than 20,000 votes in February 2014.

The EU responded by freezing Switzerland out of the first round of competitions in Horizon 2020. A stop-gap deal signed late 2014 saw the country regain access to the so-called first pillar of Horizon 2020, Excellent Science, worth €24.4 billion over seven years.

But Switzerland is still locked out of the second and third pillars of Horizon 2020, Industrial Leadership and Societal Challenges, with the same membership rights as so-called “third countries” like the US and Japan.

Swiss scientists can join projects under these pillars, but they will not receive any funding from the EU.

Swiss tangle does not bode well for UK

Switzerland’s dispute with the EU has clear implications for upcoming negotiations between the EU and the UK, said Georg Lutz, professor of political science at the University of Lausanne.

“Our country thought, ‘oh well, we can limit immigration and the EU will accept it’. But it didn’t play out like that. The EU held a consistent line before, during and after the negotiations that [the idea] was unacceptable. They didn’t blink; they didn’t want to create a precedent for other countries.”

The UK is committed to begin talks with the EU before March. Some British politicians have been talking about a so-called hard Brexit deal with both immigration curbs and free-market access.

“For me and other observers it was always completely unrealistic that the EU can be moved on this idea. It would open a [Pandora’s] box,” Lutz said.

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Related subjects: Horizon 2020