The Council of States debated the bill for two hours in the morning. The National Council argued for an hour and a half that evening. In the end, the verdict was clear: With 131 votes to 55 (National Council) and 30 to 9 votes (Council of States), the two chambers of parliament approved the release of the cohesion billion on the penultimate day of the session. The Federal Council can now act accordingly.
The councils had already approved the second Swiss contribution to the eastern EU member states in the amount of 1.3 billion francs in 2019. However, the parliament decided that the money should only be spoken if the EU does not adopt any discriminatory measures against Switzerland. This referred in particular to the recognition of the stock exchange equivalence that was not extended by the EU at the end of June 2019. The EU has not taken a step towards Switzerland since then.
End of the blockade
Nevertheless, Parliament now wants to “open a new chapter” in its relationship with its most important trading partner, as SP National Councilor Eric Nussbaumer put it on behalf of the National Council’s Foreign Policy Commission. One side has to start de-escalating.
“The mutual blockade policy has not achieved the desired goals on either side, so we have to end it,” said FDP Council of States Matthias Michel. Center Council of States Andrea Gmür-Schönenberger stated that the main dossiers with the EU are virtually all blocked.
The cohesion payments are owed, said her party colleague Pirmin Bischof. Switzerland was one of the countries that benefited most from the European single market, explained Roland Fischer (LU) for the green liberals.
Nobody could promise that the EU would take a step towards Switzerland after the funds were released, admitted SP Councilor Daniel Jositsch. But one thing is clear: “Without approval, we will definitely not achieve anything.”
Yes, out of pragmatism
The bottom line was that the supporters of the approval campaigned for a “pragmatic yes” to the submission. Now the EU must also make concessions. Many associate the release of the funds with the hope that Brussels will then be ready to accommodate Switzerland in terms of research cooperation. In the summer, the EU only classified Switzerland as a non-associated third country for the time being in the EU research program Horizon Europe.
“Hope is a bad advisor in politics,” countered the non-party Thomas Minder, who campaigned against the bill in the Council of States on behalf of the commission minority. He described the unconditional release of the funds as “wrong and grossly negligent”.
The Ticino Council of States and SVP President Marco Chiesa criticized the “colonialist policy” of the EU. Party colleague Roger Köppel spoke in the National Council of an “obviously blackmailing headlock mentality” of the Union. “A dialogue without a basis of trust is doomed to failure,” stated SVP Council of States Jakob Stark.
Critical voices in the middle
The opponents of the bill in parliament – in addition to the SVP, individual representatives from the center – further complained that the approval was given at an express train pace. “We would be well advised to include the mood in the population,” said Councilor of States Minder. Like the whole SVP parliamentary group, it went against the grain that no referendum can be held against the parliamentary decision.
All amendment, rejection and non-application of the SVP ultimately failed.
Federal Council for rapid unblocking
Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis stood up on behalf of the Federal Council for a swift unblocking of the funds. “We now have to look ahead.” The Federal Council wants to remain a reliable and committed partner of the EU even without the institutional agreement.
However, Cassis made it clear: “Approval is no guarantee that Switzerland will be able to participate in Horizon Europe or Erasmus plus in the future.” But now it is important to set an example.
Criticism of European politics
The time for the cohesion billion is pressing, said Cassis. For example, commitments based on the Cohesion Framework Credit could only be entered into until December 2024. For a proper distribution of the funds, careful preparatory work is required, which experience has shown to take at least three years.
Parliament did not give the government a good report during the debate. It still lacks a European strategy. “Switzerland’s European policy is like a shambles,” said Sibel Arslan from the Greens. Center National Councilor Elisabeth Schneider-Schneiter criticized the “quick exercise”.
The funds are now being rapidly released to the EU because the councils approved the proposal without any differences – and decided not to relink the cohesion contributions to other dossiers.
It is true that the majority of the National Council’s Foreign Policy Commission decided in the run-up to the deliberations that commitments should only be made after the Federal Council has presented the funding message for Switzerland to participate in Erasmus plus. On Thursday morning, the National Council then approved a motion with this concern. The condition was subsequently deleted from the bill on the cohesion billion. This cleared the way for a quick unblocking of the funds.
Switzerland can therefore support development projects in thirteen EU countries with CHF 1.1 billion over the next few years. A further CHF 200 million is earmarked for projects in the area of migration and asylum in individual EU countries. (SDA)