The European Union has suspended Swiss students from the Erasmus exchange programme, starting September this year.
The EU also decided Switzerland could not apply for grants from the new programmes Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+.
The decision comes after a referendum to re-introduce quotas for EU immigrants won the majority of votes in Switzerland.
After the referendum, the Swiss Ministry of Justice declared it could not sign a protocol granting Croatian citizens full freedom of movement in ten years’ time.
EU Employment Commissioner Laszlo Andor said the EU decision was not a “punishment” or “sanction” but a logical consequence that had been well-known before.
“Nobody can pretend to be surprised here. Of course, nobody has an interest in breaking off dialogue, and we will continue to engage constructively in the hope that a solution can be found rapidly,” Mr Andor said (see full statement here).
Swiss students planning to go abroad in the coming academic year have received rejection letters from their prospect universities in the past days, Swiss media report.
Elizabeth Gehrke, vice-chairwoman of the European Students’ Union said: “Switzerland is on a slippery slope of isolating its students and academics from the outside world.”
Why excluding Switzerland was the only option
Ms Gehrke’s concern was echoed in the Swiss academic world after the ban from Erasmus was made public.
As an academic having myself benefited from Erasmus, I understand the academics’ outcry. However, the European Union was forced to act after the Swiss referendum restricted the freedom of movement, as Mr Andor points out:
“This core principle of the free movement of persons is a cornerstone of our relationship. It is a fundamental right. It is not simply “negotiable”, as some tend to believe.”
In my opinion, the EU has to insist on the freedom of movement being not negotiable. If Brussels were to make concessions to Switzerland, other countries would follow to seek special agreements with the EU. For instance, David Cameron has repeatedly stressed his plans to renegotiate the terms of the UK’s membership.
However, the EU should not stop to build on its relationship with Switzerland.
According to Mr Andor, the EU is open to negotiate, but thinks it is the Swiss’ turn to make proposals:
“The Commission stands ready to listen to the Swiss proposals which are now being considered and which we haven’t seen yet. The ball is in their court. Our marge de manoeuvre, however, is extremely limited,“ he said.