Swiss Referendum Poses Threat to Study Programs ; Cross-Border Exchanges Become Bargaining Chips in European Union Talks

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Two popular exchange programs have become bargaining chips in negotiations between the European Union and Switzerland over immigration quotas.

This month's Swiss referendum vote for tighter immigration laws is already affecting the country's role in, and access to, some European education programs.

Erasmus+, the newest iteration of the popular European student exchange program, and Horizon 2020, an 80-billion-euro, or about $110 billion, research program led by the European Union that started in January, have become bargaining chips in bilateral negotiations between the Union and Switzerland that have taken place on the heels of the Feb. 9 Swiss vote.

A week after the referendum, the Swiss government backed away from an agreement to allow citizens of Croatia, which joined the Union in July, to work freely in Switzerland. Last week, the Union suspended planned talks on Swiss participation in Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020.

"For the moment, negotiations that would have extended Horizon 2020 and Erasmus to Swiss researchers and students are put on hold," said Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union.

Switzerland, which is not a member of the European Union, has a series of interlinked bilateral agreements with the bloc, signed over the past few decades, that provide for reciprocal freedoms of movement and trade, and access to labor markets, education and other services. Immigration quotas, mandated by the referendum vote, would contravene some of those freedoms. Under a mutual dependency clause, a breach of any of the treaties would require all of them to be renegotiated.

While the details of Switzerland's future immigration laws are still being hashed out, any curtailment of the existing bilateral agreements for free cross-border movements may jeopardize the country's participation in the European Union's higher education programs.

Swiss universities hosted some 41,809 foreign postsecondary students in 2011, according to the most recent figures from Unesco, including 27,940 from European Union countries.

Of these, about 3,000 were in Switzerland as Erasmus exchange students, while about the same number of Swiss students were studying elsewhere in Europe under the program. …


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