Evidently Switzerland has never been a member of the European Union but ever since the started participating in the Erasmus+ programme in 1992 it has been a valued member of European academics. In 2014 negotiations were underway to become a full member of Erasmus+. A referendum that instated a quotum on the number of immigrants allowed to enter Switzerland ended these talks since it conflicted with one of the four fundamental freedoms of the union: the freedom of movement for workers.
Since the referendum the Swiss were barred from participation in most of the European programme and could participate only under high restrictions. If the country was not to come up with a plan to guarantee free movement of workers by February 9th 2017 it would be excluded from Horizon 2020 altogether.
At long last such a deal was reached and in late 2016 the Swiss parliament passed the Federal Act on Foreign Nationals creating a compromise between Switzerland and the EU. In the new bill the quota is abolished although emoployees in sectors with high unemployment are allowed to give priority to people already living or employed in Switzerland.
In December EU-president Jean-Claude Juncker officially stated that he appreciated the Swiss efforts in finding a solution: “The Swiss authorities and the European institutions have worked tirelessly to find a solution that would guarantee full respect for one of our founding principles: the free movement of persons. The Commission will closely monitor the implementation of this solution”.
To alleviate the reduction in EU funding and to ensure a level playing field for international competition the Swiss National Science Foundation had already opened up an alternative fund for Swiss scientists. With this improved relationship participation in the Horizon 2020 programme is once again insured meaning that Swiss scientists can once again apply fort he much sought after ERC grants.
The European Commission has communicated that the participation in the Erasmus+ programme will be delayed for quite some time. The time frame of the current programme is 2014 – 2020 and negotiations about the next period won’t start for at least another year.
Lessons for the United Kingdom
The Swiss developments are being closely watched by the Brexiting United Kingdom. The article 50 negotiations will undoubtedly influence the participation of the UK in current and future European programmes for science and education.
Earlier this year prime minister Theresa May put forward her vision for Brexit emphasising strongly to value the international cooperation of European universities. The British plans to restrict immigration might very well turn out to be a major obstacle in the negotiations. Perhaps the Swiss model of compromise could be an out.
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