Ties between Brussels and Bern have been strained since non-EU member Switzerland suddenly decided in May 2021 to end years of discussion towards a broad cooperation agreement with the bloc.
Cassis said that in sorting out Bern’s future relationship with Brussels, Switzerland must get away from “purely technical and institutional questions” and instead focus on matters of content.
“It is only when we have enriched the content, when politics and society recognise the material gains that Switzerland can expect, that an institutional rapprochement will be accepted,” he told the SonntagsZeitung newspaper.
The situation needs “a little calm and creativity”, he added.
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Landlocked Switzerland is surrounded by the EU, which is its main economic partner.
The years of talks on a framework agreement hit an impasse after the EU refused to budge on Swiss demands to exclude key issues relating to state aid, wage protections and freedom of movement.
EU-Swiss ties are currently governed by a patchwork of agreements, and for more than a decade discussions were ongoing towards an overarching accord that would have harmonised the legal framework governing the relationship.
The agreement would also have established a dispute settlement mechanism.
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Looking beyond single market
But Switzerland is reluctant to meet EU demands for budget contributions and alignment on European rules as the price to keep free access to the vast EU market.
Cassis said Switzerland should not simply be looking at the EU’s internal market but also cooperation in fields such as health, research and culture.
He said the Swiss government was setting out the framework for a possible package of agreements with Brussels, or at least an agenda for talks.
Cassis said both sides had an interest in regularising their relations. Switzerland is the EU’s fourth-largest trading partner and 1.4 million EU citizens live in the country of 8.6 million people.
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“Unstable relations are not a long-term solution, neither for us nor for the EU,” said Cassis.
Cassis said Switzerland should gravitate closer to Brussels for geopolitical reasons, in a tripolar world of the United States, Russia with China, and the EU as the third power.
“The pressure on Switzerland to maintain closer ties with Europe will increase. Because the EU is closest to us economically, ideologically and socially,” he said.
However, Cassis said that Bern should stand up to pressure from Brussels for a closer political relationship.
“We cannot simply abandon our principles, take wage protection and immigration lightly and thus jeopardise social peace,” he said.