Swiss eye ‘window of opportunity’ for Horizon Europe association after federal elections

12 Oct 2023 | News

Voters go to the polls on 22 October, following which wider talks with Brussels should resume. But with the Commission’s precise negotiating preconditions unclear, it’s doubtful whether association to the research programme can be agreed before EU elections next year

Swiss voters will go to the polls on October 22 as the country’s scientists endure another year locked out of Horizon Europe, the EU’s research and innovation programme.

In May 2021, Swiss leaders walked away from negotiations to agree a new overarching deal between Brussels and Bern, citing fears that it would allow EU citizens working in Switzerland to claim equal welfare payments.

Horizon Europe association was a casualty of this wider bust-up, despite protests from Swiss universities, and Bern has had to step in with equivalent funding programmes of its own to tide researchers over.

After the election, the overarching political talks should restart, and there is hope of a swift Horizon deal at the same time. But much depends on the European Commission’s preconditions, which it has kept close to its chest, and on the complex, consensual yet time-consuming dance of Swiss politics.

“There will be from both sides a window of opportunity after our election and before the elections in the EU,” said Matthias Michel, a Swiss MP for the liberal Free Democratic Party.

Looking at the polls and the tone of the campaign, it might appear at first glance that Switzerland is set for yet more animosity with the EU, further delaying a return to Horizon.

The right-wing populist Swiss People’s Party (SVP) has a clear lead, polling at 29%, far ahead of its rivals. Its leaders are loudly against any further integration with the EU, and its manifesto trumpets more than two decades of campaigning against overarching new agreements with Brussels.

The party’s X social media feed is largely a crude list of crimes committed by foreigners in Switzerland, and occasional promises to bring the wolf population under control.

Magic formula

But despite appearances, no one expects this election to significantly change Swiss politics. “When we have elections, we don’t have big changes, we have small changes,” said Xavier Pilloud, head of office at Netzwerk Future, a grouping of Switzerland’s universities, research funders and MPs.

For a start, the SVP is only polling a couple of percentage points ahead of what it got in the 2019 elections, and on a par with 2014. It has grown considerably in popularity since the 1990s, but the party and its predecessors have been an established part of Swiss politics for around a century.

Unlike neighbouring France and Italy, which have seen established parties all but wiped out and new ones take their place in the past decade, polling in Switzerland is remarkably stable.

This matters for relations with the EU because, at most, this election will see the Swiss parliament gain a few more SVP MPs.

And the country’s seven-member federal council, made up of representatives of the four biggest parties, is the body with real power to determine Bern’s relationship with the EU, not the parliament.

This powerful council, voted in by the parliament, is expected to remain all but unchanged after the election, apart from the replacement of one socialist party member with another, with the distribution of seats between parties determined by a so-called “magic formula” that has only changed once in the past half century. The SVP, despite being the most popular party, only have two seats on this council.

In other words, Swiss politics is not just coalition politics, but a constant process of consensus-building between parties that have very stable levels of support.

Getting a mandate

Despite Bern’s dramatic exit from top-level negotiations in 2021, dozens of technical and lower-level talks between the EU and Switzerland have continued apace.

This means that behind the scenes, there is the groundwork after the election for both sides to issue a ‘Common Understanding’ forming the basis for negotiations to restart properly. Talks “never stopped really, at the technical level”, said Pilloud. This is expected to emerge after the election in the autumn.

 SVP members will likely gnash their teeth at any concessions that dilute Swiss independence, and the Socialists will likely demand guarantees Swiss wages are not hurt by EU integration.

But the expectation is that the federal council will sign off this Common Understanding, and then propose a full mandate for negotiations with the EU.

“I hope they will approve the mandate before the end of the year,”  Pilloud said. Michel also expects a mandate to be adopted this year.

Of course, this mandate then has to be consulted on with parliament and the Swiss cantons, which could take another couple of months. So if all goes well, full negotiations with the EU could restart at the beginning of 2024.

However, this only leaves a few months before Brussels is sent into upheaval by the European elections in June. “Everybody talks about this window of opportunity, which is really short,” said Pilloud.

Dual track

One big unknown is whether the Commission will allow Horizon association talks to proceed at the same time as negotiations over a wider Bern-Brussels agreement. “In Switzerland, it’s really completely unclear,” said Pilloud.

The Swiss government, understandably, is very keen on this dual track negotiation, as the main discussions could drag on for years.

“The declared goal of the federal council remains an association to Horizon Europe and related programmes and initiatives as soon as possible,” said a spokeswoman for the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation. “Switzerland is ready to start negotiations with the European Commission.

Another unknown is whether during association talks Swiss researchers will be allowed to apply for Horizon grants, on the assumption that a deal will be signed off soon. “That’s the elephant in the room,” said Pilloud.

“We would highly appreciate if the EU would let us join Horizon Europe during the negotiations,” said Michel.

As for the Commission, it is saying nothing definitive yet. “The currently ongoing exploratory talks on the future of our relationship include a basket related to the possible association of Switzerland to the Union’s flagship programmes in the area of research (eg Horizon Europe) and beyond,” said a spokeswoman. The EU hopes to find an “overall political agreement, hopefully in the coming months”.

“A positive outcome of exploratory talks could open the door to resuming our cooperation on research and innovation, as well as in many other areas,” she said.

All these unknowns have left some Swiss university leaders pessimistic, fearing the country might have to wait until 2025, or even the start of the next framework programme in 2028. But others see the UK’s recent association deal as a sign that when wider political hurdles are cleared, the Commission will move quickly to accelerate association.

There’s one final uncertainty to consider. Swiss politics is known for one other thing aside from consensus – referendums.

Any wider institutional agreement between Brussels and Bern, once agreed, will likely be put to the people by the SVP, predicts Michel.

He thinks it unlikely the Swiss population will vote against it, but if it was voted down, this would make continued Swiss Horizon association very difficult indeed.

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