Bilateral Talks Switzerland – European Union: Agenda-setting and Framework Agreement

What are the opportunities and limits of bilateral talks between Switzerland and Europe? Could a single framework agreement bring together the existing treaties?

Project Summary

The relationships with the European Union (EU) have been at the top of the Swiss political agenda since more than fifteen years. Given the recent decision of the Federal Council to relaunch the bilateral talks with the EU, European policy will very likely remain one of the most crucial issues of Swiss politics in the next years to come. Against this background, the purpose of this interdisciplinary research project was to contribute to the evaluation of the opportunities and limits of the Swiss bilateral way.

To this end, the project raised two sets of questions. The first set concerned the agenda-setting of the bilateral negotiations and the second set included the content of a possible framework agreement that could bring together the existing treaties under a single institutional umbrella. The research project evaluated the Swiss way of bilateral policies against other experiences (Japan and Korea with the EU).

Academic Output

Executive Summary

The objective of our project was to contribute to the assessment of the possibilities and limitations of the bilateral route between Switzerland and the European Union (EU). Based on the analysis of the whole matters for which Switzerland and/or the EU has expressed an interest to negotiate since 1993, the political aspect shows that the possibilities for Switzerland to influence the political agenda of the negotiations are increasingly limited, while the EU’s ability and willingness to negotiate are getting smaller and smaller. The review of the EU-Chile and EU-Mexico bilateral agreements confirms on the one hand the importance of the agenda setting phase, and underlines on the other hand the role of the European Union’s actors, in particular the Commission, in this phase. Nor is there any reason for optimism in the legal aspect of the project. First of all, with regard to existing bilateral agreements, the extreme variety of institutional clauses makes it almost impossible to define a “framework agreement” that would “oversee” all the agreements. It is also difficult to develop a proposal for future agreements that can be used and applied horizontally to any area of negotiation. On the other hand, the possibility of developing model clauses applicable according to the areas and needs of future agreements seems conceivable, provided that the the political will of the European Union and Switzerland are consistent.

Working Paper

Which future for Switzerland’s bilateral strategy towards the European Union? A qualitative comparative analysis of agenda-setting

The purpose of the paper is to highlight the conditions that are prone to a successful agenda-setting between Switzerland and the EU, as well as the conditions that are conducive to a negative outcome, i.e. to no negotiations. We theoretically discuss and empirically test the impact of four possible conditions: whether Switzerland was a demanding party, whether the EU was a demanding party (or at least showed favorable predispositions to negotiate), whether there were previous agreements in the field or in a related field (i.e., whether a sort of “spill-over effect” or “path dependency” was likely at work), whether Switzerland was an especially attractive partner in the field, and whether there were favorable external conditions pushing for a negotiation. More specifically, we do not only look at the impact of each condition separately, but we analyze how they interact and jointly influence the outcome. This logic of interaction and of the resulting combinations of causes that lead to a successful (resp. to an unsuccessful) outcome is at the core of the “qualitative comparative analysis” (QCA). Methodologically, we therefore apply QCA to the whole list of bilateral agreements that were put forward by either or both negotiation partners between 1993 and 2010. There are 46 topics altogether, bearing in mind that some topics appeared in two (and one topic even in three) different rounds of negotiations. In addition, we shall carry out a QCA for each round of bilateral talks (the first, the second, and the ongoing talks) separately. This will enable us to put our study in a dynamic perspective, and to derive implications regarding the likely future of the bilateral way.

Research Team

Pascal Sciarini
University of Geneva

Cédric Dupont
Principal Member
Graduate Institute Geneva

Christine Kaddous
Principal Member
University of Geneva





Policy domains


Host Institution