A proposed solution to Switzerland’s crisis in relations with the European Union that could potentially keep Swiss universities in the bloc’s research programme is a “move in the right direction” but “nothing is certain”, according to a senior sector figure.
Switzerland, which is not an EU member state, has until now taken part in EU research programmes as an associated country.
But a 2014 referendum in which Swiss voters narrowly backed limits on immigration from the EU sparked a crisis in relations with the bloc.
The EU expelled Switzerland from its Erasmus+ student mobility programme in response and has set a deadline of 9 February 2017 for Switzerland to formally ratify a free movement deal with new member state Croatia or be kicked out of Horizon 2020, the bloc’s current research programme.
The Swiss situation is seen by many as an example to the UK of how the EU can tie participation in its research programmes to the bigger political issue of free movement, if Britain tries to secure associated country status in research post-Brexit.
Swiss politicians are trying to find a way of implementing the referendum decision that does not break its bilateral deal on free movement with the EU.
The lower house of Switzerland’s parliament recently approved a possible solution that would mean that new jobs would have to be advertised to Swiss residents first before being opened up to those beyond its borders.
That solution could have some impact on recruitment by Swiss universities, which are highly international in terms of their staff.
Michael Hengartner, president of the Rectors’ Conference of Swiss Universities, known as swissuniversities, said that he believed that the proposed solution “at this stage conforms to the bilateral agreement and hence constitutes a valid basis for the ratification of the Croatian Accession Treaty and consequently full participation in Horizon 2020”.
But Professor Hengartner, president of the University of Zurich, noted that the proposed law “is still subject to review” by the upper house of Parliament, “which might suggest possible modifications”.
He added that ratification of the Croatia protocol “will depend on the political choice made by the federal council”, Switzerland’s seven-member collective head of state.
The situation is “moving in the right direction, but nothing is certain as yet”, Professor Hengartner said.
Clive Church, emeritus professor of European studies at the University of Kent and a specialist on Swiss politics, observed that the situation was “still unclear”.
The upper house “has only just started discussing the proposal in committee and will not complete its debates for some six weeks”, he said. “And if it does toughen the text, there will then have to be resolution meetings with the Nationalrat [the lower house].”
Professor Church noted leaks indicating that “EU jurists are unimpressed with the proposal” and see it as incompatible with anti-discrimination clauses in the free movement deal, even though European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and European Parliament president Martin Schulz “gave it a cautious welcome”.
Professor Hengartner said that the proposed job preference for Swiss residents “should not unduly affect the ability to recruit international researchers” because such roles are highly specialised.
And he said that this solution would be preferable to a strict quota system on immigration, which is viewed as another potential way of implementing the referendum decision.
“Nevertheless, the concrete effects of such a measure will depend on the implementation details, and these are of course not yet known,” Professor Hengartner added.