ZURICH: The Swiss government will consult domestic power brokers on a draft treaty setting out ties with the European Union, it said on Friday, ignoring an ultimatum from Switzerland's biggest trading partner to sign off now or face punishment.
Swiss officials said that much of the draft - demanded by Brussels for a decade and negotiated over more than four years - was in Swiss interests, but the Swiss side would refrain from endorsing the pact for now given differences that remain.
These include disagreements over Swiss rules that defend high wages from cross-border skilled labour and the rights of EU workers to Swiss social benefits.
It would revisit the subject in spring 2019 after political consultations over the draft it published on Friday. The government said the exercise would help it analyse whether signing the pact would be in the national interest.
"All paths are open from a complete yes to a complete no," Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis told a news conference in Bern.
EU sources have said Brussels will ban EU-based banks and brokers from trading on Swiss stock exchanges beyond the end of 2018 as a punitive measure should Bern not clearly back the deal by Friday. That would prompt Swiss retaliation.
The draft treaty would have the Swiss routinely adopt EU single market rules and provide a more effective system for resolving disputes. The EU has also sought to water down Swiss labour rules protecting high local wages, angering unions.
Both the traditionally pro-Europe left and the anti-EU far right say the deal infringes too much on Swiss sovereignty, leaving the four-party coalition that makes up the government short of a majority to approve the political hot potato before elections next year.
Swiss labour has fought tooth and nail against EU efforts to dilute Swiss labour rules, and the main union federation seized on texts unveiled on Friday to rail against the proposed deal.
"The elements of the framework agreement with the EU presented by the government confirm the Swiss Confederation of Trade Unions' worst fears," it said.
Swiss President Alain Berset said he broke Friday's news to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in a "friendly" telephone call, but gave no details of the conversation.
The talks are complicated by Britain's own tortuous negotiations on EU divorce terms, with the European Commission loath to be soft on the Swiss for fear of providing ammunition to Brexiteers. Some Swiss also want to see what Britain can wrangle for itself before striking Bern's own EU deal.
Swiss-EU relations suffered in 1992 when Swiss voters rejected joining the European Economic Area. This led to a negotiated patchwork of 120 bilateral accords that now govern ties.
The treaty in question would sit atop those accords and focus on five areas: free movement of people, aviation, land transport, mutual recognition of industrial standards and processed farm goods.
If talks fail, the sectoral accords would stay in effect but relations would suffer badly. No deal would mean no increase in Swiss access to the single market, dashing hopes for a new electricity union. It could also endanger unfettered EU market access for Swiss makers of products such as medical devices.