At the first ever Parliamentary Foreign Policy Day, which took place on 6 September, members of the National Council and Council of States considered in depth the various foreign policy options open to Switzerland, debating how Parliament can play a greater and more effective role in this area going forward.

In addition to the Foreign Affairs Committees (FACs), a number of delegations maintain relations on behalf of the Federal Assembly with the parliaments of Switzerland’s neighbours and of international organisations. Members of these bodies came together for the first ever Parliamentary Foreign Policy Day, which was chaired by the presidents of the two FACs, National Council member Tiana Angelina Moser (GL/ZH) and Council of States member Damian Müller (FDP/LU). The idea for the event arose from a desire for greater coordination and information exchange between the various bodies charged with addressing foreign policy issues for Parliament.

The first part of the event looked at the EU's models of cooperation with some non-member states in Europe and how these differ in terms of extent of integration, policy areas and institutional form. A range of experts from Norway, the UK and Brussels presented their experiences of cooperation between the EU and third countries, and discussed the characteristics of the various models:

  • Christian Leffler, former Deputy Secretary-General at the European External Action Service (EEAS), presented the approaches that the EU is pursuing towards the EEA, Switzerland and the United Kingdom and explained why the EU, based on the logic of the integrity of the internal market, insists on establishing stable framework conditions in its cooperation with non-member states and on clarifying institutional issues.
  • Ulf Sverdrup, Director of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, outlined Norway's experience of 25 years of EEA membership. He explained how the EEA receives broad support in Norway's domestic political debate and is perceived as the only compromise solution capable of gaining majority support in the country’s relations with the EU.
  • Charles Grant, Director of the Centre for European Reform, gave a first assessment of the United Kingdom’s experience since leaving the EU. He addressed the discussions between the EU and the UK over the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol and explained the initial impact of the UK's withdrawal on trade in goods with the EU. According to Grant, the difficulties in bilateral trade and the shortage of skilled workers are causing serious problems for the British economy and SMEs in particular.
  • Matthias Oesch, Professor of public law, European law and international economic law at the University of Zurich, described the pros and cons of Switzerland’s ‘voluntary alignment’ to EU law, and discussed his understanding of the analysis of the regulatory differences between Switzerland the EU soon to be published by the Federal Council.

The second part of the event was devoted to Parliament's rights of participation in European policy. Separate from the debate on Switzerland's future options in European policy is the issue of whether and how Parliament wishes to strengthen its participatory rights.

  • The members of parliament heard about the working methods of the Norwegian parliament’s European Consultative Committee. Per Nestande, the Norwegian parliament’s representative to the European Parliament in Brussels, outlined the ways in which his country, as a member of the EEA, can exert influence in the adoption of EU law.
  • Dr Christian Rathgeb, member of the Cantonal Council of Graubünden and president of the Conference of Cantonal Governments, described the participatory rights of the Swiss cantons in federal European policy.
  • National Council member Gerhard Pfister, president of the FAC-N sub-committee on implementation of the framework agreement, reported on the work of his sub-committee, which addresses the issue of Parliament’s participatory rights. His presentation focused on how existing participatory rights can be extended in order to increase Parliament’s degree of influence. The sub-committee will present its proposals to the FAC-N in the first quarter of 2022.
  • Lastly, Thomas Pfisterer, former federal judge, former member of the Cantonal Council of Aargau and former member of the Council of States, talked about Parliament’s room for manoeuvre in adopting EU law and argued that Parliament should play a more active role in this process. A minimum democratic standard can only be ensured if the Federal Council involves Parliament in European policy at an early stage.

The first ever Parliamentary Foreign Policy Day gave the members of parliament present the opportunity to discuss in depth the current challenges in Switzerland’s European policy and the role of Parliament; the insights gained can now be applied in the work of the relevant parliamentary bodies.

In accordance with Article 8 paragraph 5 of the Federal Assembly Ordinance on International Parliamentary Relations, the presidents of the delegations to international parliamentary assemblies and the Foreign Affairs Committees (FACs) confer once a year to coordinate their activities. At the initiative of the FAC presidents, all members of these parliamentary bodies were invited this year for the first time, and the scope of the event was broadened.