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Swiss faces deadline on EU ties

The EU wants Switzerland to agree to a broad deal that would simplify relations, currently defined by a messy set of some 120 bilateral accords.

FILE: The European Union Commission headquarters in Brussels.  Picture: AFP.

ZURICH – Switzerland faced a high-stakes decision Friday on its future ties with the European Union, with Brussels taking a hard line on economic links unless Bern agrees to key demands.

The EU wants Switzerland to agree to a broad deal that would simplify relations, currently defined by a messy set of some 120 bilateral accords.

The draft agreement on the table covers an array of issues, notably free movement of people, and generally, foresees Switzerland integrating EU rules.

Seeking leverage over Bern, the EU has threatened to not renew the so-called 'equivalence' status of the Swiss stock exchange unless the broader deal is agreed.

Equivalence allows EU-based trading platforms to buy and sell Swiss stocks. If Brussels takes that away, the Swiss exchange faces a huge hit from trade volume losses.

"The Federal Council will decide the next steps on European policy today," a spokeswoman for the Swiss executive branch, Noemie Charton, told AFP in an email.

There has been speculation that Switzerland may try to buy more time, possibly by suggesting that agreement on a wider bilateral pact would be easier to conclude once the Brexit turmoil has eased.

But EU spokeswoman Mina Andreeva said: "the negotiations are over."

"The ball is the Swiss court. The Federal Council will speak today. We will follow that closely," she told AFP.

Switzerland last week activated a plan to protect its stock exchange should the EU revoke equivalence guidelines.

EU-based platforms that want to trade Swiss stocks like Nestle are now being forced to apply for registration with Swiss authorities.

The idea is to block platforms from trading Swiss stocks within the EU and thereby force traffic back to the Swiss exchange.

The Bern-Brussels relationship suffered a heavy blow in 2014 when Swiss voters backed a proposal calling for the re-introduction of migrant quotas, which could have limited the number of EU citizens working in Switzerland.

The Swiss parliament in 2016 approved a modified version of that plan in an attempt to mend fences.

Polling shows that Swiss voters remain deeply divided about how closely to align with the EU.

Whatever the government decides on Friday will likely be put to a referendum, as part of Switzerland's direct democracy system, creating further uncertainty on a final deal.

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