Institutional agreement: the Swiss version of “remain or leave”

The European Union urges Switzerland to sign an institutional agreement to secure the future of bilateral relations between Bern and Brussels. However, the project risks failure due to Swiss domestic politics. What’s at stake?

Although Switzerland is not a member of the European Union (EU), it is integrated into the European Economic Area through bilateral agreements. The EU would like the institutional issues of this bilateral path to be settled in a framework agreement.

Between 2014 and 2018, Switzerland and the EU negotiated a text. Brussels pressured for a signature to be reached, but the Swiss government first organized consultations, which revealed three controversial points of the agreement:

• Wage protection: As wages and the cost of living in Switzerland are higher than the European average, trade unions and the Swiss industry fear wage dumping.

• State aid: the EU does not want state subsidies. The Swiss cantons fear that their banks will no longer be able to operate with state guarantees.

• EU Citizenship Directive: European citizens in the Confederation would have the same right to social assistance as the Swiss. Opponents in Switzerland fear “immigration to social assistance”.

Under pressure from domestic politics, the Federal Council tried to renegotiate these three points. The EU signaled a willingness to provide “clarifications”, but categorically ruled out new negotiations. The situation has been stalled for months.

Julie Cantalou, a political scientist and president of the GLP Lab, the laboratory of ideas of the Liberal Green Party, argues that there was a lack of political leadership from the Federal Council after the conclusion of the negotiations. The governing parties, she says, were divided and did not want to face the trial by fire of a referendum campaign. “Furthermore, Brexit and other crises in Europe have reduced Switzerland’s room for maneuver.”

A look back

Yet, relations between the EU and Switzerland had started well: full of optimism, in 1992 the Federal Council submitted an application for EU membership in Brussels. From his point of view, Switzerland was on the home straight and ready to enter the European Economic Area (EEA), seen as the first step towards full membership of the Union.

But things turned out differently: in the same year, the Swiss electorate surprisingly rejected membership of the EEA.

The government subsequently abandoned its EU membership project, preferring to define relations with Brussels through bilateral agreements.

The “bilateral approach” has proved its worth in the eyes of most Swiss people and EU membership is no longer topical.

In 2014, good relations were shaken by the “yes” of the Swiss people to a popular initiative to restrict immigration, although bilateral agreements guaranteed the free movement of people with the EU since 2002. Foreign ministers Germany and Austria publicly accused Switzerland of cherry-picking.

Parliament later watered down the initiative considerably, and in 2020 the electorate refused to end the free movement of people. The way was clear again for an institutional agreement.

And now?

Now Switzerland is back to square one. The framework agreement risks failure due to internal political resistance. The EU has made it clear that without a framework agreement, existing treaties will not be updated and no new agreements will be concluded.

“I compare the institutional agreement to updating the operating system of a smartphone,” explains Julie Cantalou. “You can do without the update, but then you can’t install new apps and over time the old ones don’t work anymore.”

In other words, Switzerland could move from the status of a “passive member of the EU” to that of a third country. Unless the EU and Switzerland reorganize their relations. Everything is still open.

Coronavirus: the situation in Switzerland

Although the situation remains fragile, the Federal Council has opted for new reopening. From Monday 19 April, green light for terraces of bars and restaurants, for events in the presence of the public and for indoor sports and cultural activities, with some restrictions. Coronavirus has brought life expectancy back to 2015 levels.

The Federal Council announced new easing on Wednesday, which will take effect on Monday 19 April. Reopening will be possible for the terraces of bars and restaurants “provided that rules such as the obligation to consume while seated and to wear a mask until the drinks arrive”, reads a press release published on the Federal Council website. .

Rules such as a maximum of four guests per table, the obligation to record the contact details of all customers and to maintain a distance of 1.5 meters between the tables or to install partition walls, will also have to be respected. Discos and dance halls will remain closed.

With some restrictions, the government has also given the green light to public demonstrations, for example in stadiums, cinemas, theaters and concert halls. The number of spectators is limited to 100 people outdoors (eg football matches or open air concerts) and 50 indoors (eg in cinemas, theaters, concert halls). In addition, the number of those present, who must sit and always wear a mask, must not exceed one third of the available seats. Maintaining a distance of 1.5 meters between each spectator will be required.

Indoor sports and cultural activities and certain competitions will also be allowed again. Pools and gyms will then reopen, but not the seaside resorts. For outdoor activities it will be necessary to wear a mask or maintain the necessary distance of 1.5 meters, while indoors it will generally be mandatory to both wear a mask and respect the spacing.

Even face-to-face teaching is again allowed outside of compulsory school and secondary level II, that is, in particular in university schools and courses for adults. However, participation is limited to 50 people and a third of the capacity of the premises and the obligation of the mask and spacing must be respected.

A “sustainable risk”

The government has decided to face a “sustainable risk” despite the epidemiological situation remains fragile and has worsened further in recent weeks.

Among the causes that make the moment particularly delicate, there are the increase in infections – with higher numbers than three weeks ago, when the reopening was abandoned – and the failure to comply with four of the five criteria set by the Federal Council to ease measures against coronavirus (the one relating to hospitalizations in intensive care is the only one that falls within the pre-established parameters).

In its assessment, the Federal Council also took into account the economic and social consequences of the measures, in particular for young people and young adults.

The government, however, “will evaluate the evolution of the health situation in the coming weeks in order to proceed in a prudent manner,” health minister Alain Berset said on Wednesday, without however providing a timetable for the next possible steps. Therefore, the date of reopening of the internal premises of bars and restaurants remains uncertain.

Depending on the evolution of the situation in hospitals, there is a risk that the slack will have to be lifted, the Federal Council warned.

Life expectancy is falling

The coronavirus pandemic in 2020 in Switzerland led to an 8.8% increase in mortality compared to the previous year, according to a study by Unisanté, the university center for general medicine and public health in Lausanne.

The increase is lower than that announced at the beginning of the year based on the first data provided by the FOPH. However, it represents a reversal of the trend after years of decline in mortality, which has brought life expectancy back to 2015 levels.

Vaccinations and anti Covid-19 treatments

On the vaccine front, we are proceeding at full speed. For the first time in a week, the threshold of 200,000 doses of vaccine administered in Switzerland has been exceeded. In fact, from 5 April to 11 April, 210,279 doses were inoculated. This is what emerges from the data published on Tuesday on the website of the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH).

Vaccination of people at risk is also progressing well: almost 50% of people over 80 and about 30% of people between 70 and 79 are fully vaccinated. The situation in intensive care units is relatively stable.

On 15 April, the General Secretariat of the Federal Department of the Interior announced that Switzerland should receive at least eight million dos of the two approved vaccines (Pfizer / BioNTech and Moderna). The cantons can therefore reduce the reserves set up for administering the second dose and increase the pace of vaccination.

The government, however, looks beyond the current vaccination campaign and focuses on production. The Federal Council has in fact instructed the Federal Department of the Interior to study in detail, in collaboration with the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, the ways in which medicines for the treatment of Covid-19, including vaccines, can be produced in Switzerland.

In addition, the government has also decided to make combination therapies with monoclonal antibodies possible in Switzerland. The costs of these therapies will first be borne by the Confederation and, subsequently, by basic health insurance.

Psychological stress on children and adolescents

More than double the number of children and adolescents who attempted suicide arrived in the emergency room of the “Kinderspital” in Zurich last year compared to 2019. According to the head of psychologists at the pediatric clinic, the cause is mainly the coronavirus pandemic.

There is still no scientific data to prove it, says psychologist Markus Landolt in an interview published on Sunday by “NZZ am Sonntag”. But the connection is highly probable. In 2020, 49 children or adolescents were admitted to the emergency room after suicide attempts, up from 22 the previous year.

And for the current year things do not seem to be going better, according to Landolt: 21 adolescents and children have already been hospitalized after suicide attempts, almost as many in all of 2019. A critical point is coming for the Zurich doctor.

It’s depressing what the children say, Landolt said. “Many describe very difficult family situations, tell of serious conflicts and violence”. But there are also those who are afraid of losing touch with school or not being able to meet their parents’ high expectations. For the older ones, it is also about fears for the future, for example not to find an apprenticeship. Still others are socially excluded and bullied.

The pandemic intensifies the factors that could lead to suicide attempts, Landolt says: for example, loneliness, sadness and fears about the future. Those affected see no other way out.

Switzerland does not doubt the WHO report

Switzerland has decided not to adhere to the joint declaration of the United States and 13 other countries, which question the conclusions of the WHO study and call for an additional investigation, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung indicated on 8 April, making reference to a paper from the Department of Foreign Affairs. The Confederation intends to take an independent stance on the study and be cautious in the “politically sensitive” debate.

The study commissioned by the Geneva-based organization, presented last week, cited natural transmission of the virus from a bat to humans via a hitherto unknown intermediate host as the most likely variant for the outbreak of the pandemic. Experts stressed the need for further studies on the origin of the virus from wildlife as well as the possible circulation of the virus outside of China before the first cases were detected in Wuhan. Researchers have called the theory of a Chinese laboratory leak as “extremely unlikely”, in line with the Chinese government.

After the report was published, the United States and 13 other countries expressed doubts about the quality of the long-awaited investigation. The study was significantly delayed and scientists did not have access to the original and complete data and samples, it is indicated. Signatories also include Denmark, Norway, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and Japan. The United States has called for further steps in the form of an independent investigation.

Do-it-yourself test at the pharmacy

From Wednesday 7 April, the “do it yourself” tests are available in all Swiss pharmacies. Each person is entitled to a maximum of five free tests per month.

It is possible to collect the five tests without making an appointment and presenting the basic health insurance card, but it is requested not to rush to the pharmacy right away. “It will not be possible to serve everyone at the same time,” warned Martine Ruggli, president of PharmaSuisse, last week.

The self-tests are intended only for those who have no symptoms and have no contact with people belonging to a risk group, as indicated by the FOPH on its website.

The head of the Crisis Management Section of the FOPH confirmed the usefulness of the self-tests, but warned about their effectiveness: “If we want to visit vulnerable people, an antigen test (rapid or PCR) is always better, as it is more effective.” Furthermore, this type of examination is recommended only and only in the absence of symptoms compatible with Covid-19.

The Federal Council’s goal is for 40% of the mobile population to undergo a weekly test. Until now, only rapid tests and PCR tests were available, which had to be performed by specialists and analyzed in the laboratory. The new tests available in pharmacies, on the other hand, allow you to do everything yourself. The result is available in 15-20 minutes.

However, a negative result is only “a snapshot” and does not “completely rule out a coronavirus infection”, warns the FOPH. The result is also valid for only one day. Do-it-yourself tests therefore do not replace the obligation to comply with hygiene rules and protection concepts. If the result is positive, the people concerned must isolate themselves and have it confirmed by a PCR test.

A vaccination certificate soon

An internationally recognized vaccination certificate should be available in Switzerland by the summer. The document will reveal that the serum was administered, but not the tests or a coronavirus infection.

Evidence of a tampon or the disease will only be integrated into the Covid-19 certificate at a later time, Anne Lévy, director of the FOPH, reported on March 24.

“We want to be able to issue a vaccination certificate that is forgery-proof and internationally recognized,” she said. There are contacts with the European Union, but Switzerland will not wait for developments in Brussels.

In the absence of a legal basis, however, a central vaccination register will not be created. The cantons, the Federal Department of Justice and Police and sectors of the private economy, including airports, are involved in the work to develop the document, which must be available in both print and digital form.

A vaccination certificate soon

An internationally recognized vaccination certificate should be available in Switzerland by the summer. The document will reveal that the serum was administered, but not the tests or a coronavirus infection.

Evidence of a tampon or the disease will only be integrated into the Covid-19 certificate at a later time, Anne Lévy, director of the FOPH, reported on March 24.

“We want to be able to issue a vaccination certificate that is forgery-proof and internationally recognized,” she said. There are contacts with the European Union, but Switzerland will not wait for developments in Brussels.

In the absence of a legal basis, however, a central vaccination register will not be created. The cantons, the Federal Department of Justice and Police and sectors of the private economy, including airports, are involved in the work to develop the document, which must be available in both print and digital form.

Green light to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine

On the vaccine front, Swissmedic has granted the temporary green light to the Covid-19 vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson for people aged 18 and over.

This was indicated on March 22 by the approval and control authority for medicines and medical devices, specifying that it must be administered only once. With those of Pfizer / BioNTech and Moderna, the number of vaccines officially marketable in Switzerland to fight the new coronavirus now rises to three.

Based on the studies, the average efficacy of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is 66.9% across all age groups tested and ranges from 64.2% (age range: 18-64 years) to 82. , 4% (age group: 65 years and over) 14 days after vaccination, Swissmedic specifies in a statement.

However, the Confederation has refrained from marketing the US company’s vaccine. As FOPH Deputy Director Nora Kronig explained earlier, the vaccine would only be available from the third quarter of the year, which is too late for the Swiss vaccination strategy.