Switzerland’s political elite were not the only ones taken aback by a popular vote against mass immigration – and the reaction from the European Union has lessons for those clamouring to end Britain’s EU membership.

That’s the warning from the rector of a top Swiss university after a tiny majority of 50.3% voted to support the introduction of quota-based immigration, including EU nationals, to Switzerland.

Warning from Prof. Dr. Antonio Loprieno, President of Swiss Rectors' Conference (CRUS)

Warning from Prof. Dr. Antonio Loprieno, President of Swiss Rectors’ Conference (CRUS)

Swiss universities and research institutions were among those shocked by the swift response of the European Commission to the ‘yes-vote’ in the country’s referendum.

Free movement of people between the EU and Switzerland was a central plank of the deal that allowed Switzerland to remain outside the European Union while still benefitting from a close working relationship, particularly in fields like research collaboration and student exchanges.

Within weeks of the February 9 vote, Switzerland was effectively demoted from having a favourable special ‘associate’ relationship with the European Union to ‘industrialised third-country’ status.

The European Commission saw the Swiss vote as breaching one of its guiding principles and, perhaps, it was also keen to make a point to others hoping to ‘have their cake and eat it’ in their dealings with the EU.

Now behind the scenes efforts are underway to find a political solution that allows the Swiss government to implement ‘the will of the people’ without doing any more harm, particularly to the academic system and Switzerland’s pivotal role as a key player in European research.

The diplomatic activities aim to restore Switzerland’s ‘associated country’ status – at least for a provisional period of time – with key EU programmes such as the Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+.

Repercussions for researchers

The repercussions of the ‘yes-vote’ were felt swiftly particularly by the research community – both in Switzerland and among its European partners – and developments are being watched carefully by other countries under political pressure to clampdown on free movement between member states.

EU measures included barring Swiss researchers from funding via the EU’s €80 billion 8th Framework Programme for Research and Innovation Horizon 2020 as well as restricting Swiss participation in European Research Council activities.

This forced the Swiss government to introduce costly short-term measures to protect important multi-beneficiary research projects with EU partners, with funding originally earmarked to Horizon 2020 now being paid on a project-by-project basis to researchers in Switzerland whose participation in Horizon 2020 projects is no longer funded by the European Commission.

Student mobility also hit

Staff and student mobility with EU countries under Erasmus+ was also suspended – and again expensive interim measures had to be rushed into place, which have meant Switzerland picking up the bill for both outgoing and incoming exchanges.

According to the Swiss Confederation: “The interim solution for 2014 has its limitations and does not provide the full range of opportunities offered by Erasmus+.

“However, it creates the framework necessary to implement planned learning mobility projects. It ensures that Swiss participants enjoy as much continuity as possible until such time as Switzerland can again become an associate country in Erasmus+, which continues to be the Federal Council’s intention.”

The statement adds: “It is also Switzerland’s aim to re-establish its association to the Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.”

Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020: Not without Switzerland

After initial stunned silence as the Swiss political elite and education establishment absorbed the shockwaves, an appeal was launched in early March under the banner of ‘Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020: Not without Switzerland’.

In an open letter to the President of the Swiss Confederation, leaders of the research and academic community explained they had launched the appeal because the European Commission’s suspension of negotiations for Swiss participation in Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 “endangers the European Higher Education Area. As the scientific community of Switzerland we cannot accept this devastating consequence.”

Support pledged across Europe

Within a month, more than 30,000 individuals worldwide had signed the appeal and support had been pledged by the League of European Research Universities; the Council of Rectors of Francophone Universities in Belgium; the German Rectors’ Conference; Universities Austria; the French Conference of University Presidents and the European University Association.

Prof. Dr. Antonio Loprieno, President of the Swiss Rectors’ Conference (CRUS) and Rector of the University of Basel, is among those leading the fight back.

He said: “Since the vote on February 9th, the Swiss academic community has maintained an adamant position: On the one hand we have regretted the decision by the Swiss people and signalled our will to do whatever we can to limit its potentially damaging effects on the openness and permeability of our academic system.

“Pre-emptive EU decision”

“On the other hand, we have reacted very strongly against the pre-emptive EU decision to exclude Switzerland even before any discussion about the implementation of the new constitutional article – a process that takes up to three years – could be conducted.

“The Not Without Switzerland Appeal is a sign of the common feeling within the Swiss and the EU scientific community that a European research and innovation community from which Switzerland is excluded would be like a Champions League without the participation of Chelsea or Liverpool.”

Progress to regain associate status

Prof Loprieno said he understood progress was being made at the diplomatic level towards an agreement to allow Switzerland’s reintegration with an associate status into the most relevant section of Horizon 2020 – “Excellent Science”.

“If this agreement obtains the necessary political approval from all parties involved, this would be very good news for Swiss academic institutions, which would be able to participate in the programmes of the European Research Council, in Future and Emerging Technologies, in the Marie Curie actions and in research infrastructures with the same conditions that applied for the 7th Framework Programme.

“As for Erasmus+, I have not yet heard of any solutions aimed at overcoming the present exclusion of Swiss institutions.”

Asked about the next steps, Prof Loprieno said: “As a scientific community, we need to make sure implementation of the new constitutional article will take due care of the needs of the universities in terms of freedom of academic recruitments at the global level, possibility for foreign qualified students to study in our country and pursuing our policy of open access to academic professions in Switzerland for excellent foreign candidates.”

He added that a lot still depends on the “philosophical flexibility that the EU will display” in renegotiating specific aspects, such as the free movement of people.

Cautionary world for others

Prof Loprieno cautioned others, including the United Kingdom – where Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to hold an ‘in-out’ referendum “after waging a tough fight for EU reforms” should his party be in power after next year’s general election.

“I think one should think twice before calling a vote on emotionally charged issues, the consequences of which may not be clear to all voters from the onset. I am sure that if the vote of February 9th were repeated now, a majority of the Swiss people would now reject the constitutional article that was voted then by 50.3% of the population,” said Prof Loprieno.

British universities watching closely

Unsurprisingly, Britain’s education and research sector is watching developments between the EU and Switzerland closely.

The prospect of withdrawing from the European Union was described as ‘potentially disastrous’ by several British vice-chancellors in the 2014 survey of UK university leaders conducted by PA Consulting for its 6th annual higher education report, titled Here Be Dragons, as University World News reported in July.

Perhaps because of what has happened in Switzerland, UK vice-chancellors are not hanging around and waiting for the outcome of a possible UK referendum.

Letter to The Times

A group of 23 led by Professor Sir Christopher Snowden, President of Universities UK, wrote an open letter published by The Times on the eve of the recent European elections, spelling out the benefits of EU membership.

A few weeks earlier Dame Julia Goodfellow, vice-chancellor of the University of Kent (where EUPRIO held its last annual conference) used Europe Day to celebrate “peace and unity in Europe” and warn against EU withdrawal.

Speaking to University World News, Lucy Shackleton, European policy officer at the UK HE International Unit, warned that a British EU exit would lead to a loss of global influence and negotiating power. “The Swiss example demonstrates the potential instability of bilaterally negotiated access to EU funding programmes,” she said.

EU position

Dennis Abbott, speaking on behalf on the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Education and Culture, said suspension of negotiations with Switzerland meant that it was not possible to sign the bilateral agreement necessary for Swiss participation in Erasmus+ on an equal footing with member-states.

In the short-term this has led to Swiss authorities setting up interim solutions and a complementary funding scheme for indirect participation in Erasmus+.

“In 2014, this means that participation of Swiss organisations will be essentially limited to cooperation activities, under the condition that the involvement of Swiss organisations demonstrates a clear added value for the Union,” he said.

Although a small majority of Swiss voters expressed their dissatisfaction with the way free movement of persons is managed, Dennis said: “They did not vote against close EU-Swiss relations. The Swiss government now has up to three years for the implementation of the popular vote and further action will be taken on the basis of the Swiss proposal.”

Unofficial talks

As for research, a brief press statement from the Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI), said unofficial talks regarding Switzerland’s participation in the Horizon 2020 research programme took place on the fringes of a visit by the European Commission’s Director-General for Research and Innovation, Robert-Jan Smits, to CERN in Geneva on 10 July.

No official proposal was made by the European Commission on Switzerland’s renewed participation; but “a number of technical and substantive issues” regarding Switzerland’s participation in certain elements of the Horizon 2020 package were discussed.

This has led to speculation that a breakthrough is imminent, but both sides have agreed not to disclose the content of their talks, but further information is promised “as and when an outcome has been reached”.

So, optimism is growing that a deal can be done in time for 2015.

Certainly many in the Swiss higher education and research community hope so, as do many of their partners in the rest of Europe.

Main photo:Le News

Further reading:

Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020: Not without Switzerland Appeal

* Photos from University of Basel, Switzerland

* This is a slightly abridged version of a blog I did for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ (EUPRIO) website, published on August 13, 2014, under the headline ‘Spotlight: Swiss immigration vote hits education and research’.