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BERN: Switzerland’s main union federation will boycott talks the government has proposed on easing rules on wages and working conditions, dealing a potentially fatal blow to Swiss negotiations on forging a new treaty with the European Union.

The announcement poses a major hurdle to a treaty, although Economy Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann said he thought an accord was still within reach despite what he called the unions’ “breach of trust” in consensus-loving Switzer­land.

Brussels is pushing Bern to agree a treaty this year, saying it will not grant the Swiss more access to the EU’s single market — the biggest for Swiss exports — in the absence of an accord.

Failure to agree would damage economic ties and relations with its giant neighbour, but the labour rules have become a major sticking point.

Switzerland last month put on hold until autumn talks on future relations with the EU, including labour market rules, while it consulted cantons, employers and labour. Technical talks were due to start this week.

“The SGB (union federation) will not take part in the negotiations planned by Minister Schneider-Ammann on the flanking measures,” it said in a statement on Wednesday.

Negotiations to formalise ties now covered by around 100 separate accords had stumbled in recent weeks, with Swiss leaders conceding that Britain’s planned exit from the EU has made it more difficult to clinch a deal.

Talks have snagged in particular on Switzerland’s wish to protect pay for Swiss-based workers, Europe’s highest, a stance the government has in the past called non-negotiable.

“We will take all measures — up to forcing a referendum — to prevent a possible reduction of the protective measures,” SGB President Paul Rechsteiner, a member of parliament for the centre-left and generally pro-EU Social Democrats party that is part of the governing coalition, told a news conference.

He said Schneider-Ammann’s envisioned concessions went too far and would not win the support they need in the cabinet and parliament.

Published in Dawn, August 9th, 2018