SEver since the Brexit deal was agreed with the European Union, there has been much argument in the Conservative Party about the interpretation of the agreement, in particular the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol, but no longer about the fundamental relationship with the EU. That is said to have changed, according to the Sunday Times, which reported on an internal government debate on a British-European “Swiss-style relationship”. Several ministers denied such a discussion, including Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, but the acute labor shortage makes such considerations at least seem plausible.
Switzerland is also not a member of the EU – it narrowly decided against it in a referendum in 1992. In more than 120 contracts with Brussels, however, the Swiss formed a relationship that secured them access to the EU internal market in many areas. As a price, Switzerland, which is part of the Schengen group but not the customs union, adopted the EU principle of free movement, albeit with some important caveats. The permanent renegotiations with Brussels are difficult and politically controversial. Most recently, the attempt to bring about a new framework agreement failed.
In the course of the Brexit negotiations, the “Swiss model” was repeatedly brought up by the British side. However, it was rejected by Brussels on the grounds that these were special relationships that had grown over time and could not be copied. The model was also controversial within the ruling Tories. With the “hard Brexit”, which was finally achieved under Prime Minister Boris Johnson, those in the party who wanted maximum independence from Brussels standards prevailed. This ultimately led to the goods control problems at the new ‘border’ between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
Although some arch-Brexiteers are sounding the alarm and warning the government against deviating from a hard Brexit, a serious revival of the discussion is hardly recognizable. So far, only pro-European Tories who are no longer in office have spoken publicly. Former Secretary of State for Trade and now Lord Mark Price said on the BBC that a Swiss model would be “the right way forward for us”. Prominence was given to a statement by the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, a “Remainer”. At the presentation of the budget, he recently expressed his “great confidence” that “the overwhelming majority of trade barriers” with the EU would be removed in the coming years.
A subtle push was made on Monday by the (mostly pro-EU) industry association CBI, whose chairman Tony Danker – without blaming Brexit – stated that the British workforce is currently insufficient and the economy needs more foreigners. However, in his reply to the CBI’s annual meeting, Sunak showed no inclination to resolve the issue by reshaping relations with the EU.
The freedom of movement for EU citizens was deliberately ended with Brexit “in order to restore public consensus in our immigration system”. One of the “enormous advantages” of Brexit is that the country can now discuss what form of immigration it wants and needs. Without mentioning the discussion about the “Swiss model”, Sunak said: “Under my leadership, the UK will not pursue a relationship with the EU based on harmonization with EU law.” Allowing companies access to the best and brightest from around the world,” but described stopping illegal immigration across the English Channel as the “number one priority” for Britain.