Speech by Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič on EU-Switzerland relations at the University of Fribourg

Dear National Councillor, Mr Steiert,

Dear Rector, Professor Epiney,

Professor Morschett,

Distinguished guests,

Dear students,

It is a pleasure to be here in Fribourg to speak to you today.

I always enjoy engaging with the new generation of bright young minds who will shape our continent in the decades to come.

For centuries, the beautiful city of Fribourg – perched on the banks of the river Sarine – has served as a crossroads. A place where bridges are built – literally, metaphorically, and linguistically.

Trade has brought wealth and prosperity here since the 11th century. River, road and later, rail have brought people and cultures together.

And given that the city lies on a major language border, it is no surprise that the University of Fribourg – an esteemed institution, tracing its origins back to 1580 – is the only university in Switzerland, offering a full range of courses in both French and German.


We come together today as Europeans. But we find ourselves in a Europe which feels unfamiliar.

This city has seen its fair share of upheaval over the centuries, but for a long time now it has known nothing but peace.

So, too, Europe as a whole had enjoyed the absence of war. Until just over a year ago, when Putin launched his barbaric attempt to subdue a peaceful, democratic, free nation by force.

The war in Ukraine rages on, causing death and destruction on a massive scale and bringing misery to millions of Ukrainians. The European Union stands shoulder to shoulder with its partners, including Switzerland, resolute in our support for Ukraine and its people.

But the war has also changed the wider world, and nowhere more so than here, in Europe.

In the EU, the new geopolitical reality has driven us to seek to consolidate our relationships with those who share our fundamental values, geostrategic objectives, and faith in a rules-based order.

Working with partners will be vital if we are to successfully overcome the global challenges that we all share, some – but not all – stemming from the war in Ukraine.

Be it increases in energy prices, inflation, and the cost of living. Or remaining competitive, as an attractive destination for all future-oriented investment, in a global environment of increasingly assertive, even hostile economic policies.

At the same time, we must not forget longer-term objectives, such as our ambition to achieve climate neutrality by mid-century, notably by accelerating the twin green and digital transition, while boosting our strategic autonomy in key industries and technologies.

I see the will for stronger, more strategic cooperation across our continent. Take, for example, the European Political Community, an EU-led initiative launched in Prague last October.

It was a landmark event which brought together the leaders of 44 European countries, including the 27 EU Member States and Switzerland.

The summit sent a powerful message of a united front, after the return of war to European soil.


It is in this context that I want to see EU-Swiss relations be in step with the times, by modernising them and unlocking their full potential – to the benefit of both sides.

The EU is Switzerland's largest trading partner. The volume of trade with the southern German states of Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria alone is larger than with China. 

For the EU, Switzerland, ranks fourth.

Given our shared values, we are also strong political allies. Switzerland has, for instance, adopted sanctions against Russia similar to ours.

We also value Switzerland's contribution to missions and operations under EU Common Foreign and Security Policy.

And Switzerland is, of course, deeply integrated into the EU Single Market, the integrity, functioning and fairness of which are of paramount importance to us.

This is precisely at the heart of our ongoing engagement with Switzerland.


When I took over responsibility for the EU's relations with Switzerland, they were at a critical point, with the Federal Council having just terminated negotiations on an institutional framework agreement.

This overarching agreement was a priority for the EU in order to govern Swiss participation in the EU Single Market.

It will come as no surprise to those of you, who are learning about European studies, when I say that we take the integrity of our Single Market very seriously.

As it turns 30 this year, it has become one of the EU's biggest achievements. Because it is the backbone of our economy, the engine of our integration, and one our most potent tools to protect and empower businesses and people, especially in times of crisis. 

Despite the setback in 2021, the EU's door has always remained open to invest in our relationship with Switzerland.

To strengthen a climate of trust and better understand what can be done, the Commission and Switzerland have started to engage in exploratory talks – now marking one year.

These past twelve months have seen eight rounds of talks and numerous exchanges at expert level.

The Commission has made a significant step towards our Swiss counterparts by agreeing to approach these talks – and effectively our relations – through a series of bilateral agreements instead of one overarching institutional framework agreement.    

My visit to Switzerland provides a good opportunity:

  • to take stock of what we have achieved so far,
  • where the open issues lie,
  • what our respective expectations are,
  • and how we can address them in a credible timeframe

In the end, it is this thorough, focused and committed preparation – in the form of the exploratory talks – that will help us determine whether we have the right foundation to move forward into full negotiations on the future of our relationship.

Because this time, I am convinced, we must succeed.


I can assure you that my team and I are working precisely with that objective in mind. 

I am happy to say that we have achieved some progress in the form of a better shared understanding on a number of issues.

But several sensitive points remain open, and much work remains to be done towards a common understanding on all structural issues, namely a level playing field on the EU Single Market, notably by:

  • agreeing dynamic alignment with EU law,
  • introducing equivalent state aid rules,
  • establishing a functioning dispute settlement mechanism,
  • and settling Switzerland's regular and fair financial contribution to EU cohesion policy.

Let me briefly outline where the EU is coming from.

The EU Single Market helps drive our economic growth and global competitiveness. It is an invaluable asset that needs to be constantly maintained and improved. Therefore, the Commission continuously works on its development, while ensuring that the existing rules work in practice.

That is why Switzerland's dynamic alignment with EU law makes sense.

And so does a level playing field for all economic operators, no matter whether they are based in the EU or Switzerland, and across all fields of the Single Market.  

Because privileged access to this market, the world's largest, means the same set of rights but also the same set of obligations.

It is a matter of integrity, fairness, and predictability.

That is why we also need an effective dispute settlement mechanism in place, to ensure an adequate implementation of our agreements.

I know there are concerns about the role of the European Court of Justice in Switzerland. That is why the EU is proposing a balanced model:

  • First, the role of the European Court of Justice is indirect. It only gives a ruling when it is asked to do so by an arbitral tribunal.
  • Second, when we speak about a role for the Court, we refer to those areas only where there are concepts of EU law.

So, we have listened to your concerns, but Switzerland must also be sensitive to ours. The European Court of Justice must be the sole and final arbiter of concepts of EU law, or there will be differences in the rules across the EU Single Market. 

Moreover, justice is blind.

The European Court of Justice will protect Swiss economic operators on the EU Single Market, in the same way as EU operators. Where concepts of EU law apply, it will protect Swiss workers, in the same way as it will protect EU workers.

A regular, fair, and mutually agreed financial contribution from Switzerland to EU cohesion policy, helping us address regional disparities, is also a logical counterpart of participating in the Single Market.

Switzerland, for its part, gains an estimated 24 billion euros per year from this participation, according to the Bertelsmann Stiftung.

Lastly, ensuring the fundamental principle of the free movement of people and workers is also vital. This is not a technical or market question, but rather the human face of the close partnership between the EU and Switzerland.

And high levels of social protection and full respect for the idea of the same salary for the same work in the same place are as important for the EU as they are for Switzerland.

We have shown that we are ready to agree to exceptions that are specific to the bilateral relationship between the EU and Switzerland, for instance addressing any risk that EU citizens move to Switzerland just to benefit from social security.

We can reach a compromise if Switzerland is sensitive to our concerns, notably the impact of our bilateral arrangements for the dynamic within the EU.

I am confident that we can find that balance.   

All in all, we need to strive for a systemic solution, covering all the structural issues across the various future agreements – while being interconnected in case of non-compliance.


Dear friends,

As time passes, our bilateral agreements are ageing – some even ceasing to apply – and without their modernisation, our relations will inevitably erode over time.

The status quo or ad hoc solutions are simply not a valid option and certainly not something that we should be content to settle for.

We have an opportunity to jointly upgrade and future-proof a framework for our relations for the decades to come.

At the same time, we do acknowledge that any package we might agree on needs to strike the right balance between the interests of the EU and Switzerland.

If we succeed, this in turn will lead to us unlocking the full potential of our cooperation, including in other areas, such as electricity, health, and food safety.

Research is another area that would benefit from the EU and Switzerland agreeing on a comprehensive way forward. Swiss association in Horizon Europe, the EU's key research and innovation funding programme of some 95.5 billion euros, would be a priority in the joint way forward.

But again, this is part of the broader package. In other words, if we are to move forward on new agreements, including one on Horizon Europe, we need to move at the same pace on all underlying issues in our relations.


Ladies and gentlemen,

I believe that the EU and Switzerland are more than just neighbours. We are economic partners. We are geopolitical allies. Daily, the free movement of goods and people in particular, nurtures the privileged relationship between us.

I came here to engage and listen. I am keen to hear from my counterparts, businesses, stakeholders.

Tonight, I would like to hear mainly from you, students, the next generation of leaders, because you represent the future. You are the ones who will have to take Europe forward in the decades to come.

I like to think that that future will also be a bright one for EU-Swiss relations.

Creating a more stable, future-oriented partnership, one which offers deeper cooperation in areas of mutual interest, would be a significant step in that direction.

For that, an unambiguous political will to engage on real issues within a credible timetable is instrumental.

The Commission, for its part, is ready to keep its foot on the pedal, with the aim of concluding exploratory talks as soon as possible and taking the necessary steps to that end, involving the Council and the European Parliament.

My hope is that we could conclude the negotiations by the summer of 2024, making the best use of the political cycles on both sides.

I can assure you that my team and I are committed to supporting the current momentum and exploiting the existing window of opportunity.

Thank you.