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EU considers bringing Switzerland in from Erasmus+ cold

Switzerland has been allowed back into the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research programme, opening up negotiations for the country’s direct participation in the bloc’s showpiece Erasmus+ mobility programme. But negotiations may be delayed for a year or more, despite the country’s light implementation of a referendum vote in favour of restricting immigration.

The European Commission says negotiations can now resume about Swiss participation in the Erasmus+ 2014-2020 programme, but these have yet to get started. Photo: Jirka Matousek

Switzerland has never joined the EU, but it did have indirect participation in the Erasmus student mobility programme from 1992

In 2014, the alpine nation was in the process of negotiating full entry into Erasmus+. However, following Croatia joining the EU, a narrow majority of its electorate voted in favour of curtailing free movement of people from EU countries on February 9. In retaliation, the European Commission immediately suspended the talks.

“The negotiations to join Erasmus+ may take longer than a year to complete”

It also kicked the Swiss out of the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, despite negotiations being concluded about Switzerland being a full participant.

Since the breakdown of harmonious relations between Switzerland and the EU after the controversial popular vote against ‘mass immigration’, Switzerland has found itself on the fringes of the EU’s main education and research activities.

The European Commission gave the Swiss until February 9, 2017 to find a solution to embrace its founding principle of the free movement of people or face total exclusion from Horizon 2020.

Just before Christmas, the Swiss Parliament adopted the Federal Act on Foreign Nationals on December 16, 2016, which offered the European Commission the compromise it was looking for. The Act stops short of quotas on immigration. Instead, employers in sectors or areas of high unemployment will offer vacancies to people already residing or working in Switzerland before being allowed to recruit from abroad.

That was enough for European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who was personally involved in searching for a solution with his Swiss counterparts.

A meeting of the EU-Switzerland Joint Committee on December 22 signalled a breakthrough in bilateral relations and allowed Switzerland back into Horizon 2020.

But full participation in Erasmus+ is going to take longer to resolve. The European Commission says negotiations can now resume about Swiss participation in the Erasmus+ 2014-2020 programme, but these have yet to get started.

In the meantime, a senior official for the Mission of Switzerland to the EU told The PIE News: “Switzerland is preparing to secure the funding for the period 2018-2020 for the interim measures which were put in place in 2014, after the vote on mass immigration, when the EU suspended the ongoing negotiations for Erasmus+.

“The negotiations to join Erasmus+ may take longer than a year to complete. Therefore, Switzerland needs to plan its funding, which has to be adopted by the Swiss Parliament in the autumn, in order to have a solution to continue funding the interim measures from January 2018 onwards.”

“Switzerland is preparing to secure the funding for the period 2018-2020 for the interim measures which were put in place in 2014″

Following Switzerland’s demotion by the EU from programme country – which are allowed to take part in all Erasmus+ activity –  to partner country – whose actions are subject to conditions– after the 2014 immigration referendum, the Swiss adopted a series of interim measures to allow some level of study abroad mobility and exchanges to continue with Erasmus+ countries.

Switzerland agreed to pay for both incoming and outgoing learner mobility under the initiatives, meaning universities have had to apply for Swiss national funding for these activities.

Swiss universities have been allowed to participate in certain Erasmus+ cooperation projects, such as strategic partnerships and knowledge alliances; but only if they either obtain national government funding or demonstrate that they bring added value to the project, in which case they may benefit from Erasmus+ funding. They have not been able to take part in capacity building projects in the field of higher education.

Switzerland has never joined the EU, but it did have indirect participation in the Erasmus student mobility programme from 1992. It also signed a bilateral agreement that enabled it to participate fully in two of the seven forerunner programmes to Erasmus+, the Lifelong Learning and Youth in Action programmes, from 2011 to 2013.

Despite the funding divide, the Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation, SERI, declares on its website that “participation in EU’s education programmes is one of the priorities of Switzerland’s international strategy for education, research and innovation”.

In 2013, the last year the country participated in EU funded activity, over 7,000 young Swiss were able to benefit from mobility programmes in EU countries.

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