Swiss minister pessimistic on swift EU treaty

Swiss Economy Minister Guy Parmelin said the EU would weaken itself if it no longer cooperated with Switzerland on research. (AFP/File)
Updated 01 September 2019

Swiss minister pessimistic on swift EU treaty

  • The Swiss retaliated by banning EU venues from hosting Swiss stock trading

ZURICH: Switzerland is unlikely to strike a deal with the EU this year over a stalled partnership treaty, its economy minister said, extending an impasse that has hurt bilateral ties and disrupted cross-border share trading.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has urged Bern to wrap up the accord before his term ends on Oct. 31, when German politician Ursula von der Leyen is set to replace him.

The Swiss government has also said it would like to clinch a deal by then if three final points can be clarified.

Economy Minister Guy Parmelin, however, told the SonntagsZeitung newspaper that he was pessimistic, given that representatives of Swiss labor, employers and cantons had been unable to find common ground Switzerland could use in the talks. “We want a good solution that can win majority support, and that is not the case at the moment,” said Parmelin, a member of the right-wing and euroskeptic Swiss People’s Party.

“I don’t think we can wrap up this year. Our agenda and that of the EU allow a conclusion only next year at the earliest,” he said, citing Swiss elections in October, the creation of a new European Commission team and a Swiss referendum due next year on abolishing free movement of EU citizens.

Brussels blocked EU-based investors from trading on Swiss exchanges from July 1 as the row escalated over the treaty under which non-member Switzerland would routinely adopt the EU single market rules. The Swiss retaliated by banning EU venues from hosting Swiss stock trading.

In Bern, resistance to the treaty — negotiated over 4-1/2 years and Switzerland’s top foreign policy issue — encompasses the normally pro-Europe center-left to the anti-EU far right, which both see the pact infringing on Swiss sovereignty.

Failure to secure a treaty deal with its biggest trading partner means Switzerland gets no new access to the single market, its crucial export outlet. The partners have 120 bilateral economic accords that would stay in place but erode over time when they are not updated. Research cooperation could also stop.

“I think the EU would weaken itself if it no longer cooperated with Switzerland on research,” Parmelin said. “We are then forced to seek alternatives, perhaps along with Britain, if the EU remains dogmatic.”

Parmelin played down a Swiss media report that he would urge post-Brexit Britain to join the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), which groups together Switzerland, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. 

He said some Swiss politicians liked the idea but the Swiss Cabinet had not discussed it.

“I have not heard that this is needed by Britain. If Britons want that, we will review it, but I believe it would be risky,” he said.

“Given its size, Britain would dominate the rest of EFTA.”


American farmers worry as crop prices dip amid corona outbreak

Updated 26 May 2020

American farmers worry as crop prices dip amid corona outbreak

  • Farmers growing corn and soy — the biggest crops in the world’s largest economy — were hoping for a turnaround this year

MOUNT AIRY: Dave Burrier steered his tractor through a field, following a GPS map as he tried to plant as much corn as possible amid the yellow and green rye covering the ground.

Striving to get a massive yield out of his crops in rural Maryland is how Burrier hopes to make it through yet another uncertain year, beset by market disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and renewed trade tensions between the US and China.

“We’ve had so much price erosion that we’re basically at below the cost of production. We’ve got to figure out how to manage and turn a profit,” Burrier said. “That’s harder than planting this corn.”

American farmers growing corn and soy — the biggest crops in the world’s largest economy — were hoping for a turnaround this year after Washington and Beijing reached a truce in their months-long trade war, which included a pledge to buy more US agricultural goods.

But the coronavirus hit before the benefits of that deal could be felt, disrupting transportation and operations at slaughterhouses, sapping demand, while the global oil price crash closed the ethanol and biofuel plants that could have picked up the slack.

“It’s kind of glum,” said Dave’s wife Linda Burrier, a soybean farmer who serves on the United Soybean Board, the crop’s governing body in the US. Yet she remains guardedly optimistic.

“Farmers are one of the most faithful people there are,” she said. “You put a seed in the ground, you expect to get a crop out of it.”

Facing a supply glut, the US Department of Agriculture projects the average farm price for corn will to drop to its lowest level in 14 years in the 2020-2021 growing season. Soybean prices also are expected to fall. And a study from the University of Illinois and Ohio State University earlier this month predicted that even with payments from government safety net programs, corn and soybean farmers are facing total revenue losses of $8.5 billion to $10.2 billion amid the pandemic.

President Donald Trump’s administration spent $28 billion in 2018 and 2019 to help farmers hurt by the trade war, and pledged another $16 billion this year to offset the market disruptions.

Dave Burrier said the current conditions are a grim echo of the 1980s — a decade he would prefer to forget — when a combination of low commodity prices, heavy debt burdens and a grain embargo against the Soviet Union ruined American farmers. “It gives me a chill to talk about it,” he said.

Plenty has changed in the more than four decades Burrier, 67, has been farming.

Computer monitors in his tractor display detailed metrics to track his planting, replacing the pen and notebook his father relied on.

The Soviet Union is gone, but US farmers once again are partly at the whim of a foreign power.

China retaliated for Washington’s unilateral trade actions with crippling tariffs on US soy that drove a steep drop in total US agricultural exports to $9.2 billion in 2018, less than half the 2017 amount, according to government data. Exports recovered to nearly $14 billion last year.

In the “phase one” deal reached in January, Beijing agreed buy up to $50 billion in US farm products. But with Trump accusing China of covering up the origins of the coronavirus, fears are rising that the deal will fall victim to the acrimony.

“Agriculture in America is very vulnerable right now, but if we have a good growing season we should be able to get through this year,” said Arlan Suderman, chief commodities economist at INTL FCStone.

Danielle Bauer, executive director of both the Delaware and Maryland soybean boards, said farmers in her area have stepped up exports to Taiwan and are expecting increased demand for high oleic soybean oil, a variety grown exclusively in the US.

“There is a lot of uncertainty. The farmers are bracing for a really hard year all around,” she said.

The Burriers also plant wheat and make good money selling hay to a nearby racetrack, and Dave’s corn yield last year was double the county average.

But 60-year-old Linda admits the setbacks of recent years plus the pandemic mean the couple probably will have to delay retirement.

“We’re going to have to wait, I don’t know, another 5 or 10 years, if we can, physically,” she said. “My husband’s worked really hard. I don’t know how much longer he’s going to want to keep at it.”