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EU Politics: Swiss lessons for Britain

Richard North, 07/12/2012  


BBC 347-swi.jpg

It seems it's retrospective day, for the BBC, this time producing and article on the 20th anniversary of the Swiss rejection in a referendum of membership of the European Economic Area by "the tiniest of margins".

The BBC positions this membership as "the first step towards full membership of the European Union". Had it joined the EEA, by now, it says, "Switzerland would probably be one of the more longstanding members of the EU".

The article is worth reading in full, but what is interesting is the way the EEA is seen as a halfway house to EU membership. Yet this very same organisation we see as a parking place for the UK, should we leave the EU.

In fact, there is no contradiction here. What can be a way in can also be a way out. Membership of the EEA is a very good way of parking the Single Market issue, neutralising concerns about trade while we attend to the serious business of extracting ourselves from the acquis.

Elsewhere, we have seen concerns that EEA membership does not distance us sufficiently from the EU. That concern is well-founded. In addition to the partaking in the Single Market, members are required to subscribe to the "four freedoms", which includes open borders within the area, with its unrestricted immigration.

We heard of some of the effects of that unrestricted immigration recently, during a Westminster Hall debate.

There are 1.4 million EU citizens working in the UK, with 107,000 unemployed and almost half a million economically inactive. Those EU citizens have some 400,000 children. And about half of the total, currently 1,079,000, come from the so-called A8 countries, the eight central and eastern European countries that became members of the EU in May 2004.

However, that is only one side of the equation. On the other side, about 5.5 million British-born people live abroad, with roughly two million resident in EU member states. Walk away from the "four freedoms" and a very large number of expats are without a home.

Unravelling this mess, therefore, is going to take time and care, which makes a halfway house a sensible proposition. But, with Article 50 and the EEA, a safe extraction is doable.

Nevertheless, there are those who still argue for renegotiation route, not realising that the Article 48 "revision procedure" requires a majority on the European Council before a convention can be set up or an IGC declared. In order for the UK to introduce amendments to the treaty, it needs a majority on the European Council.

As to the possibility of hijacking an existing IGC – which seems to be Boris "burbling" Johnson's preference – that can't happen without the support of the Council president, who controls the agenda. Should the UK seek to impose an agenda item, it is back to a majority decision of the European Council. The renegotiation route has nowhere to go.

No one should run away with the idea, though, that membership of the EEA is the final solution for Britain. Looking at the Swiss scenario, we see that since 1992, Switzerland has concluded more than bilateral 100 agreements with the EU, including one that allows the free movement of people.

That is something from which we can learn. An Article 50 agreement is not the end of the story. Once we have withdrawn from the EU and repatriated the acquis, we will have a similar ability to forge bilateral agreements with the EU, and there is nothing to stop us eventually walking away from the EEA - or seeking treaty amendments. But these are not options we have to consider at this time.

Nor is it going to be easy. The BBC piece, suggests that an "era of agonised decision-making may be approaching", because Brussels has told the Swiss government the EU is no longer interested in pursuing bilateral agreements. Instead Brussels wants Switzerland automatically to adopt EU law - "a suggestion which is already causing Swiss hackles to rise".

But Britain on the outside would change the calculus. Bullying Switzerland comes easy to the "colleagues" – especially when so many Swiss politicians would rather be inside the EU than out. Britain would be a different proposition.

And, as Switzerland found, outside the EU, its economy is healthy and unemployment is low. Unsurprisingly, the Swiss people have little enthusiasm for Brussels: barely eleven percent, outside the political clique, want membership. The way things are going, the UK won't even have that number in favour of membership.

In that, we would be happy to follow in Switzerland's footsteps.

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