Swiss researchers worry about being shut out of EU research

06 Feb 2019 | News

Following the Swiss government’s announcement of a national consultation on the shape of its future relationship with the EU, Swiss scientists fear Brussels may deny them access to the forthcoming Horizon Europe research programme

Martin Vetterli, president of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). Photo: Lysiane Pons, Science|Business

Academics in Switzerland are worried the EU may shut them out of the 2021 – 2027 Horizon Europe research programme as a way of pressurising the country to ratify a new agreement on its overall relationship with the EU.

That follows the announcement by the Swiss government in December of a national consultation on the “institutional framework agreement” that covers key aspects of Switzerland’s relationship with the EU.

The consultation is a lengthy process involving all layers of Switzerland’s highly devolved democracy, and is very likely to culminate in a referendum on the future relationship.

While not unusual for Switzerland, where plebiscites on specific questions are common, for Brussels, it raises the prospect of yet another embarrassing national referendum on the EU.

Though the agreement does not cover research, withholding access to Horizon Europe is one way Brussels can put pressure on Switzerland to sign.

“There might be less good will today than there was, among other things because of the Brexit situation,” said Martin Vetterli, president of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), at a Science|Business event on 5 February.

“I think Brexit is a divorce between two entities. We have never been married in that way. We were in a partnership. But of course, that casts a substantial shadow,” said Gian-Luca Bona, CEO of the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa).

Selmayr memo

A particular cause for Swiss anxiety is a leaked memo signed by the commission’s secretary general Martin Selmayr, in which he instructed senior colleagues to suspend all talks on Swiss access to the EU’s internal market, “until a satisfactory outcome for the institutional framework agreement is found.”

A Swiss official said that as a consequence of the Selmayr memo, the commission’s legal service is now delaying Swiss membership of EuroHPC, a new Horizon 2020-funded joint undertaking in high performance computing. That is despite the fact, “We were giving a lot of resources and support in setting up this new joint undertaking,” according to the official. Switzerland is currently home to the most powerful supercomputer in Europe.

Though a national consultation itself does not entail a referendum, the Swiss system makes it very easy for political parties to trigger one. Concerns over immigration, wages, social security and national sovereignty have sparked opposition to aspects of the Swiss/EU agreement from parties on both the right and the left.

The whole process could easily drag on until after the start of Horizon Europe in 2021, raising fears among Swiss academics and government officials that the EU will not let them participate in the research programme until the deal gets ratified, or freeze them out indefinitely if it is rejected.

Guillotine clause

This would not be the first time that Brussels has cut Switzerland out of EU research programmes following a referendum. In 2014, a slim majority of Swiss voters backed a motion called “against mass immigration,” which sought to restore limits on immigration that had been in place prior to 2002, when a collection of bilateral agreements with the EU came into effect.

The seven agreements include one on free movement of people and another on research, with all linked together by a “guillotine clause,” which means that if one agreement breaks down, they all fall.

Although Switzerland never cancelled any of the treaties, it was nevertheless denied access to some parts of Horizon 2020, which had begun that year. “We were kicked out immediately,” said Vetterli. What followed was a three-year scramble for Switzerland to regain full access to the research programme.

By contrast, countries including Bosnia and Turkey have had full access to Horizon 2020 throughout, even though unlike Switzerland they do not have free movement with the EU, and typically stamp EU passports with 90-day entry visas on arrival.

In 2013, the deal over Israel’s participation in the Horizon 2020 research programme was held up over EU guidelines that barred Israeli institutions in the West Bank from receiving EU funding, but at the last minute an agreement was brokered before Horizon 2020 started.

The experience of 2014 shows any suspension does long-term damage to major research projects, said Joël Mesot, president of ETH Zurich. There were programmes which Swiss researchers were leading, but after the 2014 referendum vote, “somebody else [took] their place. You don’t recover from this,” Mesot said. “On European Research Council grants, we recovered [to] the level that we had for FP7 [the predecessor to Horizon 2020], but on the industrial collaborations we are way below now.”

ETH is a network of six research-intensive institutions, including EPFL and ETH Zurich. The ETH board, which oversees the ETH network, has yet to form an official view on the institutional framework agreement. It is due to discuss the matter at a meeting in March.

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