The FINANCIAL — A majority of the Swiss population favors the expansion of relations with the EU, but wants politicians to be more assertive toward other countries. As Swiss voters see it, events such as Brexit and the ongoing pandemic have greatly weakened the EU. As in the past, a majority is counting on trade with major non-EU countries to offset any decline in access to European markets for Swiss businesses. These are among the results of the fourth Credit Suisse Europe Barometer, a representative survey conducted by gfs.bern on behalf of Credit Suisse in cooperation with the Europa Forum Lucerne.
A strong majority (77%) of Swiss voters consider stable relations between Switzerland and the European Union (EU) to be important. In this context, nearly as many (76%) believe that bilateral treaties continue to be either somewhat or very important as well. A majority would also like to expand cooperation with the EU, primarily through the institutional framework agreement – but not at any price, since Swiss voters, in this year of the COVID-19 pandemic, are more confident about relations with other countries. Nearly three-quarters favor a more assertive policy toward international trading and negotiating partners, according to the fourth Credit Suisse Europe Barometer. The results are taken from the 2020 Credit Suisse Worry Barometer, which will be published on November 19, 2020.
Growing support for expanding the bilateral path
The Europe Barometer also shows that a clear majority (65%) favors expanding relations between Switzerland and the EU. This represents a substantial increase of 13 percentage points (pp) relative to 2019. Eighteen percent of respondents want at least to maintain the status quo (-6 pp), and only 12% would prefer to reduce cooperation with the EU (-3 pp). Among those who favor increasing cooperation, support for the institutional framework agreement has declined: The first priority of 53% of respondents is not the framework agreement, but the extension of bilateral treaties; this is 10 percentage points lower than the previous year. Twenty-seven percent are primarily interested in renegotiating the framework agreement (+10 pp). In 2020, once again, there is little interest in joining the European Economic Area (top priority for 9%) or the EU (top priority for 7%). Overall, although most people are aware of the institutional framework agreement with the EU, its profile has not risen over the course of the past year. According to the study’s author, Lukas Golder of gfs.bern: “Between the end of 2019 and the survey that was conducted in July and August, a period when the focus was mainly on consulting the social partners about the agreement’s content, the share of voters who were actively aware of the dossier remained constant at approximately 60%. This is probably due in part to the fact that a new discussion of the framework agreement was not launched until after the vote on the initiative to limit immigration, which took place this fall.”
The Swiss are confident
In 2020, another popular initiative was defeated that would have strained Switzerland’s relations with the EU: the initiative to limit immigration. Now that it has been rejected, the next task is to expand relations through the institutional framework agreement. Since 2017, there has been an increase in the number of Swiss voters who view Switzerland’s policymakers as (too) defensive in their dealings with other countries. Sixty-nine percent believe that these policymakers are acting very or somewhat defensively, an increase of 24 percentage points in the past three years. Yet this approach is not in accord with the wishes of the electorate. On the contrary, a clear majority (73%) want Swiss politicians to be somewhat or much more aggressive in their interactions with other countries. This view has become even more pronounced in recent years (+5 pp relative to 2019). The self-confidence of the Swiss people is also rooted in the fact that nine out of ten people in Switzerland believe that their country is viewed favorably abroad; indeed, 26% say that Switzerland’s image is “very positive.”
Is a weakened Europe an opportunity for Switzerland?
Just as the electorate is convinced of Switzerland’s positive image abroad, it is critical of developments taking place within the EU. Seventy-five percent of Swiss people believe that the EU has been somewhat or greatly weakened by the events of the past 12 months (+10 pp relative to 2019), with only 12% asserting that the EU has been unequivocally or somewhat strengthened.
Christof Wicki, Director of the Europa Forum Lucerne, offers an explanation: “The high level of indebtedness of some member states, the refugee crisis at the EU’s external borders, Brexit, internal challenges to democracy, and increasingly difficult relations with partners such as the United States and China have no doubt contributed to these views. Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that Swiss voters are more confident about our relations with the EU.”
The response to and consequences of the COVID-19 crisis also play a role in assessments of the past 12 months. Seventy-seven percent of Swiss voters find that Europe has drifted apart because of the COVID-19 pandemic, while only 16% believe that the pandemic has brought the EU closer together.
Trade with non-EU countries as a potential compensating factor
The 2020 Europe Barometer shows a slight decline, relative to the previous year, in the optimism of Swiss voters in the event of deteriorating trade relations with the EU. Overall, a slight majority of 53% (-7 pp) of the electorate believes that increased trade with large non-EU countries, such as the United States or China, would clearly or somewhat offset a decrease in trade volume with the EU. However, the share of respondents who consider it unlikely or impossible to compensate in this way rose by 12 percentage points to 40%. When asked what strategy Switzerland should pursue in light of increasing political power struggles among the world’s biggest economies, 53% (+4 pp) favored Switzerland pursuing its own niche policy and only 35% (+1 pp) favored joining with a unified EU in order to strengthen Switzerland’s negotiating power.
Manuel Rybach, Global Head of Public Policy and Regulatory Affairs at Credit Suisse, observes: “Compared with last year, more people in Switzerland believe that trade relations with the EU are important and that new treaties with non-EU countries are no substitute. This is a realistic assessment. But we need both. While the EU is by far Switzerland’s most significant trading partner, free trade agreements with non-EU countries are also important for our export industry.”