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Supranational structures

Prof. Christa Tobler explains the reasons for the Swiss rejection of the EEA Agreement in 1992.
Let us now address the second aspect that helps to understand why Switzerland is not a Member State of the European Union. After having sketched how the EU has evolved historically, we now chronicle Switzerland’s reaction to the emergence of this neighbouring structure. When the three European Communities were founded, Switzerland was of the opinion that they provided for a too far reaching economic integration. Indeed, this system went beyond traditional cooperation between governments. It created a new kind of approach to international law that is often called supranational. Rather than such an approach, Switzerland preferred the traditional intergovernmental approach of cooperation. It therefore founded, together with a number of other European states, the EFTA as an alternative to the Communities.
Remember that at that time, the EFTA was only about the free movement of goods, and that it did not - and still does not - include a customs union. Much later, in spring 1992, the Swiss federal government decided for a different approach. In May of that year, it sent a letter to Brussels requesting talks about the possible accession of Switzerland to what were then the three European Communities. However, due to political developments in Switzerland later in 1992, the request was put on ice and that is where it still is.
In Switzerland, the issue of whether the request should be formally withdrawn comes up regularly in the political debate even though the EU, in fact, does not treat it as an active application for membership. So what were the reasons why the Swiss request for membership talks were put on ice. The discussion started with the EEA, the European Economic Area. The EEA is based on the treaty that was concluded between the Community Member States on the one hand and the EFTA states on the other hand. The Swiss federal government signed the EEA Agreement. And this then found the approval of the Swiss parliament. The issue was then put to a popular vote.
In December 1992, a record high of 78.3% of Swiss citizens who are entitled to do so went to the ballot boxes. A very thin majority of the voters, namely 50.3%, rejected the EEA Agreement. At the same time, they represented a very clear majority of the Cantons. Since Switzerland said no even to the EEA, it was clear that EU membership stood no chance. This also proved to be the case when, some years later, a constitutional initiative on the same issue was launched. Now whereas in the English language, the term referendum is commonly used for both a referendum and an initiative, in terms of Swiss law, there is an important distinction.
On the federal level, a referendum concerns a decision by the Federal Parliament either on a federal law or on an international agreement. A referendum requires 50,000 signatures of Swiss citizens of age in cases where such a referendum is not mandatory anyway. In contrast, an initiative aims at changing the Federal Constitution. In order to put such a proposal to a popular vote, 100,000 signatures of Swiss citizens of age are needed. In Switzerland, the acceptance of a popular initiative on the federal level requires a double majority. This means that the majority of the people as well as the majority of the Cantons need to say yes to the proposal in order to implement it.
In the case of the initiative on EU membership talks of 2001, the vote was about several new provisions that should have been put into the Swiss Federal Constitution. Among these was Art. 23 according to which, first, Switzerland participates in the European integration process and for that purpose aims at acceding to the European Union; second, the Federation immediately takes up membership talks with the European Union; and third, accession to the European Union is put to the people and the Cantons for a vote. The result of the vote was extremely clear. All Cantons were opposed as well as 76.8% of the people who participated in the vote.
Given these developments, the Swiss federal government eventually decided to adopt its aims with respect to EU membership from a ‘strategic aim’ to ‘a more long-term option.’ Indeed, it is quite clear that at this point in time, EU membership is not a realistic perspective as far as the Swiss side is concerned. For example, a poll carried out in 2015 showed that 85.8% of those questioned were opposed to the idea of accession to the EU within the next 10 years. As accession would have to be put to a compulsory referendum vote, it is clear that it would have no chance whatsoever in the present situation.

Having helped found the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), Switzerland at some time even considered membership of what were then the European Communities.

When the European Communities were founded, Switzerland was not in favour of the economic integration approach reflected by them. Instead, it helped found a more traditional organisation, namely the European Free Trade Association. However, in 1992 the Swiss Federal Government decided for a different approach and requested talks about a possible accession of Switzerland to the European Communities. Due to developments in Switzerland, this request was put on ice in the same year. Very recently, in summer 2016, Switzerland decided to formally withdraw the request for membership talks. This was after we shot this video and it shows how complex and fluent the discussion on why Switzerland does not belong to the European Union remains.

If you are interested in further information about the Swiss federal system and the poll from 2015 that is mentioned in the video, you will find some links below.

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Switzerland in Europe: Money, Migration and Other Difficult Matters

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