Europe Barometer: Bilateral agreements broadly supported
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Europe Barometer: Bilateral agreements broadly supported

The bilateral agreements continue to enjoy widespread support among the Swiss population. However, the majority of Swiss voters believe that if access to the European market were to be reduced, Switzerland would be able to compensate for this loss by increasing its trade with major third countries.

A clear majority of Swiss voters would prefer to see a continuation of the bilateral agreements rather than the other forms that Switzerland's relationship with the European Union (EU) could take, as described in the survey. While there is some debate about how exactly the relationship should be structured, Swiss voters clearly express the view that they consider the Swiss-EU relationship to be important and they value stability. This is the conclusion reached by the second Credit Suisse Europe Barometer, a representative survey conducted by gfs.bern on behalf of Credit Suisse and in collaboration with the Europa Forum Lucerne. The results form part of the 2018 Worry Barometer, which will be published on December 6, 2018.

When asked how the future relationship between Switzerland and the EU should look, 65% of Swiss voters said that continuing the bilateral agreements should be the first priority. This represents a significant increase versus 2017, when just 48% of voters said that the continuation of the bilateral agreements should be the first priority. At the same time, just 13% of those surveyed said that priority should be given to terminating the bilateral agreements – a decrease of 8 percentage points over the last 12 months. Accession to the European Economic Area (EEA) attracted a similar level of support. This proposal, which was only narrowly rejected in 1992, is now the preferred option for just 13% of voters. If the portion of the electorate who see EEA accession as their second preferred option is taken into account, this figure increases by 29 percentage points to 42%. There is no prospect of Switzerland joining the EU at present, with just 3% of voters considering this to be a feasible option.

Bilateral route seen as very important

In total, 82% of Swiss voters view the bilateral agreements between Switzerland and the EU as either "very important" (34%) or "somewhat important" (48%). The importance of the bilateral agreements is also undisputed across the different language regions of Switzerland (over 80% strongly agree/tend to agree). However, the proportion of people in Italian-speaking Switzerland who consider the agreements to be very important is somewhat lower than in the rest of Switzerland at 11%, compared to 36% in German-speaking Switzerland and 31% in the French-speaking region of the country. Lukas Golder, Co-Head of gfs.bern, stated: "In contrast to the positions adopted by the different political parties, voters agree across party lines on the importance of the bilateral agreements. Even among SVP voters, there is a solid majority of 77% who think the bilateral agreements with the EU are important."

Views on the EU differ strongly

The Swiss are nevertheless divided in their overall opinion of the EU. Around one-third of voters see it as a unifying peace project (36%). In contrast, 44% of the respondents view the EU as a divisive, bureaucratic project. Meanwhile, nearly one in five people in Switzerland (18%) said they were undecided as to what exactly they thought of the EU. According to Christof Wicki, Director of the Europa Forum Lucerne, a range of events in the recent past is likely to have contributed to the somewhat critical overall view of the EU: "The EU's image has been tarnished by the UK's decision to withdraw from it, as well as by the clear lack of capacity and willingness to agree on in-depth cooperation in areas such as the refugee crisis. These factors are likely to have had a clear effect on the way the Swiss population views the EU," said Wicki.

Voters are confident

The results of the Europe Barometer also show that the Swiss would remain optimistic in the event of a deterioration of trade relations with the EU. A total of 16% of voters believe that the strengthening of trade with third countries like the US and China could replace any loss due to a decrease in trading volumes with the EU. A further 38% of respondents tend to agree with this view, while 39% believe it is either fairly or completely impossible that this loss of trade could be replaced. Manuel Rybach, Head of Public Affairs & Policy at Credit Suisse, stated: "The EU is Switzerland's most important trading partner by far. In 2017, almost half of all Swiss exports of goods went to neighboring countries in Europe. In comparison, a significantly smaller proportion of goods were sold to the US and China, which accounted for 15% and 5% of exports, respectively. A deterioration in trade relations with the EU would therefore be likely to have a major impact on Switzerland's export sector." 

Replacement for trade relations

Politicians could do better

If Swiss voters had to give politicians marks out of six for the way in which they explain their European policies, they would score them an average of 3.9 – meaning they were slightly dissatisfied with their performance. One-third of those surveyed awarded a score of 3.5 or lower, with 54% giving politicians marks of between 4 and 5. Only 6% awarded very good or excellent marks (5.5 to 6). The scores were almost identical when voters were asked about the extent to which politicians reflect the wishes of the population (average mark 3.9). A total of 34% were dissatisfied, saying politicians do not take voters seriously enough when it comes to European policy issues. 54% said they were satisfied, while 7% rated the performance of politicians as very good or excellent on this question.

Strong national sense of belonging

Swiss citizens still have a strong national sense of belonging. When asked what geographical entity they considered themselves part of primarily and secondarily, 53% of voters named Switzerland. Next came the canton where they live (48%), which increased by 7 percentage points to take second place, replacing the language region (32%). Compared to the previous year, the language region was down 22 percentage points and, in 2018, actually ranks in fourth place behind municipality (34%). There is no distinct sense of European belonging within Switzerland, with a mere 17% of voters saying they felt European as their first or second choice. Lukas Golder from gfs.bern commented: "The Swiss still see the EU first and foremost as an economic project that should ensure the country and its economy have continued access to the EU single market. Political idealism is a less important factor."