June 19, 2019 / 6:07 AM / in a month

Swiss need more time to clinch EU treaty - foreign minister

ZURICH (Reuters) - Switzerland’s political system of painstaking consensus-building requires more time to strike a deal with the European Union on a new treaty, Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis said, suggesting no quick resolution to a potentially damaging log-jam.

FILE PHOTO: Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis addresses a news conference in Bern, Switzerland June 7, 2019. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

A tit-for-tat battle over Swiss and EU stock exchanges’ access to investors loomed this week after the Swiss government failed to meet a Brussels deadline to embrace the pact negotiated over more than four years.

Even more friction between neutral Switzerland and its biggest trading partner lies ahead if no deal on a treaty that Brussels has sought for a decade emerges by the time the present European Commission’s term ends on Oct. 31.

But Cassis said the Swiss would not be rushed into signing.

“We have taken very clear decisions and made progress in this dossier but the tempo demanded by the EU does not correspond to the possibilities of a direct democracy like Switzerland,” Cassis told Swiss broadcaster SRF in an interview from Moscow aired late on Tuesday.

“As a result, we would say: We have moved and we expect the European Union to move.”

He was referring to the Swiss system of giving voters final say on all important matters, and prospects that they would shoot down a treaty gives even proponents of a deal pause.

Opposition from across the political spectrum has made it practically impossible for the Swiss government to sign the draft treaty now, sources close to the matter told Reuters last month.

The treaty would have non-EU member Switzerland routinely adopt EU single market rules and have EU citizens in Switzerland enjoy the same rights as in their home countries. It would open the possibility of new trade deals, such as for an electricity union combining Swiss and European utilities.

But opponents range from the far-right Swiss People’s Party, which calls the treaty an unacceptable infringement of sovereignty, to the centre-left Social Democrats, who reject diluting Swiss rules that protect Europe’s highest wages from cross-border competition.

The Swiss cabinet this month asked Brussels to clarify provisions on wage protections, state aid and the rights of EU citizens in Switzerland before signing off on the treaty, frustrating EU desires to wrap up a deal years in the making.

Unlike Britain’s messy Brexit divorce from the EU, Switzerland has a patchwork of 120 sectoral accords that govern EU ties and which would remain in place in the absence of a new treaty. But they will become increasingly outdated as EU single market rules evolve.

Reporting by Michael Shields

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