Europe shelves HE and research negotiations with Swiss

The European Union has shelved negotiations with Switzerland over two major higher education and research programmes. The move came after the Swiss government’s announcement that it would deny EU member Croatia talks over a labour market agreement.

Switzerland’s announcement last weekend that it was suspending negotiations with Croatia on free access to the Swiss labour market came as a direct consequence of the referendum a week earlier in which a slender majority of voters opted for tougher immigration regulations.

The EU warned that the outcome of the referendum could have serious repercussions for agreements with Switzerland in various areas. Now it has responded to the new Swiss approach to Croatia by shelving talks on the Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 programmes.

Although Switzerland is not an EU member, a successful outcome of negotiations on the two programmes would have meant a considerable amount of additional funding for Swiss higher education and research.

The Horizon 2020 programme has a total budget of around €80 billion (US$110 billion) while the Erasmus+ student exchange programme is worth just under €15 billion. The two initiatives run from 2014 to 2020.

Consequences for higher education

As reported by University World News, the surprise result of the 9 February referendum on immigration policy could have serious consequences for higher education in Switzerland.

A senior higher education official warned that curbs on immigration could be a “great tragedy” for the country’s world-leading and highly international science sector.

In January 2014 Swiss higher education and research representatives issued a manifesto condemning the campaign for tougher immigration controls run by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party. Their worst fears – that an upshot of the referendum could be the exclusion of Switzerland from Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ – appear a step closer to being realised.

On 13 February the European Students’ Union, or ESU, together with the national union of students in Switzerland, called for education and research to be protected from the results of the poll and for the country to continue collaboration in developing a European Higher Education Area.

“Switzerland is on a slippery slope of isolating its students and academics from the outside world. This could have devastating effects that would be difficult to reverse,” said Elisabeth Gehrke, vice-chair of the ESU.

The concerns of higher education leaders, academics and students appear to have been trumped by a ‘guillotine clause’ in agreements between the EU and Switzerland that makes all of them conditional on the free movement of people – which suspending talks with Croatia on access to the Swiss labour market would prevent.

Another referendum?

The result of the Swiss referendum has to be transformed into law in three years, and the government aims to have a draft bill ready by the end of this year.

Swiss Social Democrats are already considering a new referendum should the bilateral agreements with the EU be cancelled.

According to party leader Christian Levrat, people would then have to choose between implementing the recent referendum initiative and retaining bilateral policies with the EU.

A reader’s poll in a top Swiss Sunday newspaper suggested that 74 % of the population was in favour of keeping the agreements with the EU.

* Michael Gardner Email: