For three days at the end of last year Switzerland and Austria helped six Balkan countries (‘Western Balkans Six’) to engage in negotiations for an agreement on the mutual recognition of professional qualifications. Given that each of the countries intends to eventually join the European Union, the recognition system they wish to set up should be based on EU legislation, which Switzerland applied in the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons.
Swiss expertise for six Balkan countries
What do Switzerland and the six Balkan countries have in common? They are surrounded by EU Member States. This may have been what prompted the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC), which Switzerland also supports on a foreign policy basis, to request SERI's expertise to help these six countries negotiate an agreement on the recognition of professional qualifications.
The RCC, which replaced the Stability Pact for South-Eastern Europe in 2008, seeks to promote mutual cooperation and integration between the countries of South-Eastern Europe in order to foster development in this region. The countries concerned (Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Northern Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina) are all candidates or potential candidates for accession to the European Union. They therefore decided to use EU rules as a basis for negotiating an agreement on the recognition of qualifications, in particular with a view to preparing, if only indirectly, for future accession.
Complexity of the system
The complexity of EU rules on the recognition of qualifications requires expertise and their practical effects, once applied, depend on several factors. In particular, the way in which each country regulates professional activities is crucial: flexible regulations make the recognition procedure simple, whereas strict regulations will have the opposite effect. A large portion of the workshop was therefore devoted to describing national regulations applicable to the professional activities to be covered by the agreement (engineers, architects, doctors and dentists).
SERI therefore limited itself to describing how the European system works and how Switzerland applies it under the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons. Specific examples were also provided to illustrate tangible effects.
‘Keep it technical’
While political matters were not entirely absent from the discussions, representatives of the six Balkan countries were driven by a common desire to find technical solutions and leave politics aside. The quality of the discussions was remarkable and, while many more discussions and negotiations are still needed, the parties were able to make progress towards improving their common understanding of the subject. They also gained a clearer idea of the points that still need to be negotiated and those on which agreement is possible.
Reinforcement of Switzerland’s position at international level
Through its involvement, SERI is able to raise its profile and position itself at international level. The ERI strategy approved by the Federal Council in July 2018 also provides for various actions in the area of recognition of professional qualifications. While this strategy does not explicitly mention an agreement with the six Balkan countries, its involvement will lead to greater convergence of recognition systems in the medium term, establishing ties between competent authorities, and positioning SERI as a competent and reliable partner in this area.
The six Balkan countries have set ambitious targets, namely to complete their negotiations by the summer. Regardless of whether these targets are met, the discussions held in this process will reinforce cohesion in the region, which is in the interests of both Switzerland and Europe as a whole.
Frédéric Berthoud, SERI
Head of International Cooperation in Education and Professional Qualifications Unit