Switzerland has been fully readmitted to the European Union’s research programmes after MPs backed a compromise solution that will see the nation continue to subscribe to free movement of people.
The EU has announced that it will readmit Switzerland to Horizon 2020 as an associated country, after two years in which the nation was subject to “partial association” after its referendum backing restrictions on immigration.
The deal came ahead of an EU deadline that would have meant Switzerland being expelled from Horizon 2020 if an agreement had not been reached.
Researchers at Swiss universities will continue to be eligible for EU funding, including highly prestigious European Research Council grants. Swiss universities had feared damage to their ability to attract top researchers if they were removed from the EU’s programme.
The move may reinforce to the UK that the EU is prepared to demand free movement of people as a condition of membership of its research programmes. The UK government has refused to give any indication as to whether it will seek to remain inside the EU’s research programmes – from which British universities benefit by about £1 billion a year – as an associated country after Brexit.
Switzerland is not a member of the EU, but signs up to free movement of people and is part of the single market under a series of bilateral deals with the union.
After the referendum result in 2014 – in which voters backed restrictions on immigration by the narrowest of margins – the Swiss government said that the verdict of voters meant that it was unable to ratify a free movement deal with new EU member Croatia.
The EU responded by restricting Swiss access to Horizon 2020 and expelling the nation from its Erasmus+ student mobility programme.
The EU set a deadline of February 2017 – by which time the immigration outcome has to be written into the Swiss constitution – for Switzerland to ratify the free movement deal with Croatia or be expelled from Horizon 2020.
Swiss lawmakers have agreed a “light” implementation of the referendum verdict, which stops short of quotas on immigration. Imposing quotas on immigration would have been a violation of the free movement deal that sees Switzerland granted access to the single market, Brussels had said.
Instead, Switzerland’s solution will see employers in sectors or regions with high unemployment asked to advertise vacancies to Swiss residents before they are allowed to recruit from abroad.
That has angered the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, which was behind the immigration referendum and believes the compromise solution does not respect the result of the vote.
The European Commission said in a statement: “On 16 December 2016, the Swiss Federal Council ratified the protocol on the extension to Croatia of the Free Movement of Persons Agreement between the EU and Switzerland. That means that…as of 1 January 2017 the Association Agreement with Switzerland continues to apply and will be expanded to cover the whole of Horizon 2020, Euratom Programme 2014-2018 and activities carried out by Fusion for Energy.”