EU Referendum

Brexit: lessons from Switzerland


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We've heard a lot about the "Swiss option" recently – the preferred model of the Hannanites and others for their "Brexit" plan. The irony, though, is that – as the referendum on 9 February shows - not even the Swiss can make it work. So fragile is the arrangement that Swiss president Didier Burkhalter thinks that there will have to be a referendum on bilateral relations with the EU by 2016.

In an interview published on yesterday by German-language weekly NZZ am Sonntag, Burkhalter said, "The decision will be at the end of a long process that has only just begun", adding: "Until then there is still a tough obstacle course ahead of us".

Burkhalter dodged a question about whether he wanted to reverse the February referendum, saying that he was striving for "the best solution for Switzerland, no more and no less".

As it stands, the federal government opposes the immigrant quotas demanded by the Swiss people, which have put at risk Switzerland’s bilateral agreements with the EU.

Brussels has already said that Bern cannot pick and choose which agreements it wants and has indicated that if the free movement of people agreement is not continued, other deals, such as freedom of goods and capital, will be revisited.

Burkhalter notes that the federal government is developing an implementation plan on the immigration issue that will be ready by the summer as a "template" for consultation. He says this did not prevent the government from holding parallel "exploratory talks" with the EU and member countries of the union.

Having voted in 1992 against joining the European Economic Area, which effectively blocked any prospect of membership of the EU, Switzerland has enjoyed a series of bilateral agreements with the Union. But with these under strain, the whole relationship is now set for review.

Coincidentally, we see the BBC reporting on the Swiss situation, pointing out the reluctance of the EU to offer concessions.

To offer free trade without free movement to a non-member would be a huge political risk - perhaps prompting countries like Britain, which have made their doubts about free movement clear, to see life outside the union as more attractive, says the BBC report.

It cites Ivo Scherrer, founder of a new political group called Operation Libero, who says: "I don't think we will be able to square this circle". He is working on "a different, less isolationist vision for Switzerland".

"Our [current] strategy makes us vulnerable," he says. "Switzerland is bound to lose access to European markets and institutions, so is the Swiss bilateral route not a strategy to recommend to big member states with big doubts about the EU?"

"Britain would have to decide for itself whether such an isolationist strategy is worth the cost. I personally think it's not," Scherrer concludes.

With that, we also get a contribution from the Financial Times, which has Alexis Lautenberg, Switzerland's ambassador to the EU from 1993 to 1999. Such uncertainty underscores the complications of the Swiss-EU relationship, he says

"When you look at the difficulty that one vote can cause for the whole construction of Swiss-EU relations, it doesn’t give the impression of a perfect model for others to copy". Patrick Emmenegger, a professor at the University of St Gallen, agrees. "A solution as complex as the Swiss one would never work for bigger economies, such as the UK", he opines.

How much of this is special pleading is hard to tell, but the EU itself in a Council report has already concluded that "negotiations as regards Switzerland's further participation in parts of the Internal Market have been marked by a stalemate".

No one can deny, though, that the "Swiss option" is in trouble and it is anybody's guess how it will pan out. But the UK has a real interest in the result. The path Switzerland follows may point the way for Britain's long-term relationship, but it may also show that there are barriers which cannot be surmounted. A complete rethink may be needed.