On 9th of February 2014, the people of Switzerland voted in a referendum for the limitation of immigration from the European Union. Within three years, the government has to fix annual quota for asylum seekers and EU citizens interested in living in the country. In response, the EU has now suspended negotiations about the association of Switzerland to the European funding scheme Horizon 2020 (H2020).
On 26th of February 2014, the European Commission declared that Switzerland for the time being is treated as an industrialised third country. This means that Swiss institutions receive EU grants only in exceptional cases. And Swiss universities have to give up the coordination and lead management for distinguished research projects like one of the two FET Flagship programmes, the Human Brain Project, at best with the next call for grants. “This core principle of the free movement of persons is a cornerstone of our relationship,” the European Commissioner justifies the decision.
Among students and scientists, this development led to protests. Supported by various Swiss institutions, the Union of Students in Switzerland (VSS) launched an “appeal for an open European higher education area” that has already been signed by more than 30,000 people and was supported by the European University Association (EUA).
“Horizon 2020 like Erasmus+ is a program that symbolises the European higher education area. It is extremely important for Swiss and for European universities,” says Dominik Fitze, VSS representative, based in Bern, Switzerland, adding: “There are excellent research projects both in Switzerland and in the EU that can only work if Switzerland is involved in European programs”.
Switzerland is heavily implicated in European research projects, which makes the referendum’s decision potentially disastrous for Swiss scientists. “We are cooperating with our Swiss partners in big European projects and when talking about dual and trial education structures, we are depending on the Swiss expertise,” comments Andreas Frey, professor of educational science at HdBA, the University of Applied Labour Studies of the German Federal Employment Agency in Mannheim.
He adds that the level of Swiss partners integration is such as that their absence is problematic. “Focusing on this research area, any other European partner cannot compensate for Switzerland,” says Frey, “And we also need the European funding. We could not afford our big bilateral research projects with our basic funds alone.”
Swiss scientists have already received support from European colleagues towards creating a common research area including Switzerland. “In addition to EUA’s statement the French and German Rectors’ Conferences also published statements supporting of an open higher education and research area including Switzerland underlining the importance of further close European cooperation for the entire European academic community,” says Lesley Wilson, secretary general of EUA, based in Brussels, Belgium, adding, “all the more so as the results of the vote show that the university cities in Switzerland voted against the motion to limit immigration.”
While the European Commission’s action in relegating Switzerland to the status of a ‘third country’ is a direct result of Switzerland’s own decision to isolate itself from exchange with their peers and partners in other parts of Europe, EUA emphasises the importance of maintaining such exchanges and scientific collaboration given their importance for Europe and for all parties concerned. “And personally, I believe it is regrettable that the action taken by the EU focused on higher education and research while other arrangements, like Schengen, appear have not been affected,” Wilson points out.
In a partial back-pedalling move, the Swiss parliament, the Bundesrat, decided on 7th of March 2014 that it wants to support Swiss researchers who are suspended from the cooperation because of the suspension of the negotiations about H2020. The State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) has introduced transitional solutions for directly funding scientists in Switzerland. But it declared its intent to be fully associated to horizon 2020 as soon as possible.
Swiss and other European scientists are hopeful that the vote of the referendum and the EU’s reaction will not stop bilateral research cooperation. In practice, the specific possibilities for involvement of Switzerland differ from programme to programme. An analysis of the specific programme guidelines clearly indicate in which cases Switzerland can still participate and even coordinate projects. “It is not just a question of EU funding. Swiss universities now also have to invest a lot of time and energy in contacting their partners and reassuring them with regards the programs”, Wilson says.
Today, it is too early to accurately evaluate whether there have already been some instances where Swiss scientists have been neglected as potential partners for the current H2020 calls. “Although certain special areas are in danger, Horizon 2020 will not fail completely,” Frey notes. He hopes that the university boards in the different European countries will bear their scientist’s cost for exchange, conferences and congresses in Switzerland, until a mutually acceptable solution is found.
Is the European Commission going to reconsider its decision in the long term? Nobody knows! But it seems that the negotiations over Swiss participation on Horizon 2020 will not be start again until the question of free movement of persons is settled in Switzerland. Swiss scientists hope that, eventually, Switzerland will define generous quota that do not affect the free movement of persons in practice. And that the European Commission will accept such concession.
Featured image credit: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by keepps