Back in 1972 Switzerland agreed a free trade deal with the EU. The deal, which came into force the following year, removed duties and quotas from industrial products.
In 1973 the EU was a far smaller club than today, Britain, Ireland and Denmark had just joined bringing the number of members to nine. Today there are 28.
Adding insurance and streamlining the flow
Switzerland’s next EU deal came in 1989. This time it agreed to a two-way deal opening trade in the insurance sector. This agreement, which came into force in 1993, covered most products, but not life insurance. In 1990, an agreement to streamline customs procedures was signed and came into effect in 1991.
More trade, free movement of people, but not without a vote
Then in 1999, the Swiss government negotiated a more far reaching set of agreements. The main elements of this set of deals, known as Bilaterals I, were the free movement of people and greater trade freedom, both of which came into force in 2002. Free movement of people allowed EU citizens to live and work in Switzerland, and Swiss nationals to do the same across the EU. The package also included a long list of other things such as measures to reduce technical trade barriers and expand cooperation in agricultural trade, public procurement, aviation, road transport and research (Horizon 2020).
Numerous Swiss citizens and politicians rallied against this package and launched a referendum to stop it. On 21 May 2000, Swiss were asked to vote for or against accepting it. 67.2% of the 48.3% of Swiss citizens who cast a vote gave the package a green light. The Bilateral I rules went into force on 1 January 2002.
Visa freedom and asylum
The next big agreement, known as Bilaterals II, was signed in 2004. This time the focus was on coordinating asylum procedures (Dublin regulation) and doing away with immigration controls between Switzerland and most of the EU (Schengen). In addition, the package included a long list of other things such as deals on film subsidies, pensions, environmental protection, and education (Erasmus).
Once admitted to the Schengen visa free travel zone, an individual requires no visa to cross borders – the Schengen zone includes Switzerland, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and all EU countries except Britain, Ireland, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia.
The Dublin regulation is designed to improve the processing of asylum applications, prevent an applicant from submitting applications in multiple Member States and reduce the number of “orbiting” asylum seekers, who are shuttled from one member state to another.
Swiss-EU deals on both Schengen and Dublin came into force in 2008, and the last immigration controls at Swiss airports were on 29 March 2009.
Voting against the grain
In a referendum on 9 February 2014, 50.3% of Swiss voters said no to unrestricted migration between Switzerland and the EU.
In the wake of the vote, the Swiss government decided not to sign a deal opening its labour market to Croatia. In response, on 14 February 2014, the EU cut Swiss universities out of the Horizon 2020 and Erasmus deals on research and education.
- A 5-step guide to Switzerland’s immigration changes (Le News)
- 7-step guide to getting a Swiss passport (Le News)
- Immigration vote: dark clouds (Le News)
The Swiss government has until February 2017 to find a compromise with the EU that will allow them to implement the changes to EU immigration specified in the constitutional changes resulting from the February 2014 referendum. So far EU representatives in Brussels have been unaccommodating, saying repeatedly that the Bilaterals are an all-or-nothing package that cannot be cherry picked.
Frayed discussions have been paused in the run-up to Britain’s vote on 23 June 2016 on whether to remain in the EU. And like Britain’s vote the outcome is uncertain.
An overview of Switzerland’s bilateral deals (in English)
Swiss federal council explanation of EU bilateral agreements (in French) – Take a 5 minute French test now
Swiss federal council explanation of EU bilateral agreements (in German)