Swiss science is caught in tangle of Brussels politics

03 Mar 2020 | International News

Switzerland wants full access to the EU’s next research programme, but finds itself navigating an immigration referendum, a tussle over a new treaty, and fallout from Brexit

Swiss scientists fear a number of political obstacles could block their path into the EU’s next big research programme, with Brussels, in an uncompromising moment, proposing to place the country in a category of wealthy states that may be barred from a raft of its innovation-focused programmes.

That would have an impact on the access that Switzerland - the EU’s closest research partner - has to Horizon Europe, starting next year.

The new designation sees Swiss researchers caught up in political wrangles encompassing a crucial vote this May on curbing immigration, protracted uncertainty over a new Swiss-EU treaty, and collateral damage from Brexit.

The threat of being blocked from the full €90 billion Horizon programme is a source of major disquiet for academics.

“There’s big concern over our future in EU research collaborations,” said Martina Weiss, secretary general of swissuniversities, which represents the country’s higher education institutes.

For Swiss science, which boasts an incredible history of world-leading research and discovery, there’s a nervous wait until the EU lays down its negotiating cards later in the year.

“It’s about so much more than money; it’s about competition and new interactions. You could tell Rodger Federer you were going to build him a beautiful tennis court in the Swiss mountains, but if he could never play on a Wimbledon court again, he wouldn’t be happy,” Weiss said.

Switzerland is global leader in scientific research, with excellent universities that produce top scientific papers. In particular, it excels in life sciences, pharmaceuticals and medical technologies, areas that have thrived partly because of Switzerland’s relationship with the EU.

Freezing Switzerland out of some of the EU’s top science competitions would weaken European interests, in the face of powers like the US and China, said Philipp Langer, deputy director-general at the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI).

“It’s in all our common interest to have a Europe that is strong against global competition,” said Langer, who is responsible for Swiss participation in Horizon Europe.

A European Commission spokesman told Science|Business that Horizon Europe “is open to the world from the outset. Switzerland will have the opportunity to apply for association, as is the case today under Horizon 2020,” he said. “The participation of third countries to EU programmes is currently part of the ongoing negotiations about the EU's next long-term budget,” he added.

Switzerland has access to EU markets and programmes via a web of more than 120 bilateral deals and has participated in EU research programmes since 1987. In 2004, it became a full associate partner (there are 16 associate partners today). Switzerland is also associated to the research programme of the European Atomic Energy Community, Euratom, which coordinates research projects across borders.

“The value of the whole [of Horizon Europe] would be reduced if we’re not in all of it,” said Petra Studer coordinator of Netzwerk Future, a body representing higher education, research and innovation organisations at the Swiss Parliament.

Similarly, Jean-Luc Barras, head of institutional relations at the Swiss National Science Foundation, which invests around CHF1 billion (€940 million) per year in basic research said, “I see the danger of a lose-lose situation here.”  

The new conditions for Horizon Europe still need to be hashed out by member states, but the intention is to prevent non-EU countries being net beneficiaries. It is proposed “a correction” will kick in, if there is a “significant imbalance” between the grants a country wins and the entry fee its government pays. In some past years, Switzerland has been a net beneficiary, due to the high success of its researchers in the EU’s grant competitions.

“If ever there was jealousy in some parts of Europe about this, well now, with this pay as you go system, it becomes easier politically for the EU,” Studer said.

Enmeshed in politics

Switzerland has been here before. In February 2014, a national referendum was won by anti-immigration campaigners, and as a result the government did not extend freedom of movement to citizens of Croatia, which joined the EU in 2013. In response, the EU cut off full Swiss membership Horizon 2020, curtailing its access to two-thirds of the €77 billion R&D programme. Bern paid gave research more money to cushion the blow; but the impact was severe.

While Switzerland ranked ninth in the EU funding charts between 2007 and 2013, it fell to fourteenth place in the first year and a half of Horizon 2020. The net loss over the life of the seven year programme is estimated to be CHF734 million (€686 million).

The major damage was reputational though and, having enjoyed platinum membership of Europe’s most exclusive research club, it was deeply frustrating for Swiss-based researchers to find themselves on the outside looking in.

A compromise was eventually found, and the Swiss were fully re-admitted to the programme.

But since then a new series of obstacles have popped up. Fallout from Brexit has landed in Bern, with Brussels averse to giving the Swiss any special concessions the UK might seize on. “Brexit has definitely been bad timing for us,” Weiss said.

“It’s difficult for the EU to make a better offer to Switzerland on science while it is in its difficult negotiation with the UK,” Studer said.

At the same time, Switzerland is in its own difficult negotiation with the EU, being asked to endorse a new treaty – the so-called institutional framework – that would require it to routinely adopt single market rules. The EU views this as merely updating and simplifying the Swiss arrangement. The European Parliament has described the current package of agreements with Switzerland as "complex, sometimes incoherent and not easy to sustain".

But the new treaty also includes demands that the Swiss soften rules protecting wages, the highest in Europe, from cross-border competition by EU workers on temporary assignments. Critics say the treaty infringes Swiss sovereignty.

Complicating Swiss efforts to smooth relations with Brussels is an upcoming May referendum on ending free movement of citizens from the EU (essentially a repeat of the 2014 vote).

The relationship with the EU has grown into the country’s biggest foreign policy issue. Researchers in Switzerland expect to be left dangling for as long as their government holds out on signing the pact.

“It’s clear there is no legal link between this wider, institutional agreement and research; the former is dealing with market access, which isn’t research. But politically, as long as there are differences of opinion between both sides, research is an area where the EU can put pressure on us,” said Studer.

As things stand, Switzerland cannot participate in the new European Universities scheme, which aims to boosts cooperation across borders in academia. The programme is only open to countries involved in the Erasmus+ student exchange scheme. “We felt that was a negative message,” said Weiss.

And the protracted uncertainty over the Swiss-EU future relationship has left some researchers in a state of limbo. “The uncertainty has hurt recruitment at universities,” Weiss said.

“In 2014, during our temporary freeze-out from Horizon 2020, rectors told me they had these great researchers interested in coming here, but who saw it as a risk,” said Studer. “Now this is the same situation so long as we don’t know the rules of the game with Brussels.”

The Swiss offer

Switzerland is a proven partner to the EU, an intrinsic part of the European economy, a participant in the Schengen common visa policy and the Dublin common asylum policy.

It is also home to 1.4 million EU and EFTA (Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway) citizens, with a further 315,000 workers crossing the border into Switzerland every day. The country’s trade balance for goods and services favoured the EU to the tune of €105.4 billion in 2018, Langer noted.

In total, Switzerland has won a whopping 676 ERC grants, and 69 Swiss national ERC grant winners are currently working at host institutions outside the country. “The ERC has really worked for all of Europe; it’s a label of excellence. Our universities are thrilled to host these grants. There’s something for us to really fight for,” said Weiss.

Similarly, the country’s participation in the Euratom nuclear research programme is considered vital. The country is a key testing ground for equipment, with engineers at the Paul Scherrer Institute providing quality control on many of the parts for the ITER fusion reactor, now under construction in southern France.

Right now SERI is preparing legislation for the country’s membership in Horizon Europe, which will need to be flexible, because no one knows the final Horizon Europe budget or the extent of Swiss involvement. At the same time, legislation is being prepared for the country’s next four-year national funding cycle.

Time is short, but with no agreement yet among EU member states on the bloc’s next long-term budget, and no broader discussion still on Horizon research access terms, there is little clarity available for Swiss officials.

“It will be very tight to prepare everything” for the Horizon programme, said Weiss. “And while we think flexibility in the bill is important, we also want the security that we’ll get to keep this funding for research, even if we don’t get all the access to EU research we want.”

Barras says that the EU should consider how the Swiss “have gone far in opening up our research system” to foreigners, while always pursuing closer cooperation with Brussels, when weighing up Horizon Europe access terms.  

May vote

Researchers also fear the immigration referendum taking place in May could wreck their hopes of putting relations with Brussels on a new footing.

The vote, which some are calling Switzerland’s “Brexit moment”, is brought by the right-wing People’s Party, which in addition to curbing immigration wants to loosen Switzerland’s ties to the EU.

“Everyone is waiting for May 17. Only after will we be able to breathe a little bit,” said Studer. “Everybody who is concerned about this has a duty to explain its impact and why it’s important to say no to this initiative.”

Support for the Peoples’ Party fell in last year’s national election, but it remains the biggest party in parliament and has two of seven seats in the federal cabinet.

Some fear the EU’s tough recent approach to Switzerland risks stoking further anti-EU feeling in the country, and Swiss voters will send a message to Brussels in the May poll.

“I don’t know if they would feel sufficiently angry to do that,” Weiss said. “We don’t feel there’s bad will from Brussels – we don’t feel they want to punish us. It’s just not been an equal negotiation when we sit down to it; there’s a size imbalance that you can’t ignore.”

Access to EU innovation

Switzerland has shown it’s ready to put big money into new technologies and bring other countries along with it, said Andreas Gut, head of international programmes at Innosuisse, the Swiss innovation agency. 

“If Switzerland gets good terms on Horizon Europe, Innosuisse is committed to engage, invest and promote further cooperation,” he said.  

Gut wants to see Swiss companies competing for funding in the EU’s main innovation competitions. “Innosuisse helps them build up their competencies here, and then they enter the SME Instrument, or what will now be called the European Innovation Council. These companies can go one step further with EU funding,” said Gut. This sort of market support is not available for companies in Switzerland.

Most of Innosuisse’s involvement in EU research is via three programmes: the Electronic Components and Systems for European Leadership project, which funds research on strategic technology like semiconductors; the Active and Assisted Living project, which coordinates research into technologies to help older people to live independently; and Eurostars, which backs cross-national projects among  SMEs.

Swiss science investment travels beyond its borders, Gut said. The country is behind a recent effort to boost Croatia’s participation in the Eurostars programme. “Switzerland set up a ‘buddy scheme’, he said. “Of the total amount spent, 64 per cent came from Switzerland; Croatia brought in 11 per cent; and then the European Commission topped this up by a further 25 per cent.”

As a result, in 2019 the number of submissions from Croatian organisations to the programme increased from four to 14 and it won five projects. “It was win-win of course, because we also got to see new talent and cooperation opportunities,” said Gut.

Plan B

Guile and patience are two features the Swiss have demonstrated in times past in dealings with the EU. If Switzerland is frozen out of future EU research competitions, the country will look at other plans.

The UK, which still has to negotiate its own way into Horizon Europe, has publicly mooted the idea of setting up a research funding body with other interested countries.

During the period after 2014 when it was locked out of the ERC, the Swiss came up with a replacement, although its grants did not carry the same cachet.

“We could come up with an alternative, like in 2014 – although we don’t want to be in this position,” said Barras.

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