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Swiss send a message from the Alps to the Pennines

by Sam Ashworth-Hayes | 03.08.2016

In a small country, split from the rest of Europe by a quirk of geography, worried officials are working around the clock to balance the result of a populist referendum against its potential economic damage. The trade-off is clear: cutting immigration comes at the cost of access to the European single market. The economic price is too high to pay. But the political price for overturning the result could be higher still. Welcome to Switzerland – and possibly to Britain.

The referendum story is familiar. High immigration from the EU bred resentment. A referendum was called. Polling showed a lead for the status quo and only one party backed the clampdown. But a campaign led by right wing eurosceptics hammered home their message of immigration putting. It captured a large rural vote and won a narrow victory.

For the UK, it’s the follow up that’s interesting. The EU made its position clear soon after the vote: “The core principle of the free movement of persons… is not simply “negotiable”, as some tend to believe”. It hasn’t wavered since. Indeed, as Politico EU points out, the UK’s vote has increased the likelihood of the EU taking a hard stance.

Switzerland faces an acute dilemma. Its relations with the EU consist of a set of bilateral treaties, all beneath a “guillotine clause”. If Switzerland ends one agreement, it ends them all. This is unthinkable, but the government is constitutionally bound to follow through with the results of the vote – unless a new referendum overturns the last one.

This may well be the eventual outcome. Back in 2014, Swiss President Didier Burkhalter said: “It will be necessary for the people of Switzerland to vote again on what they want the future of the bilateral agreements to be… by the end of 2016 or the beginning of 2017”. Enough signatures have been amassed on a new petition that a vote will now have to be scheduled.

It’s likely, too, that this vote will turn out differently from its predecessor. The Swiss voted for explicit quotas on incomers. They now know that they can only get those at the price of their special deal with the EU. They have already been booted out of the EU’s science research programme Horizon2020, and the Erasmus Plus student exchange programme. As the consequences of the vote have sunk in, the consensus has shifted.

If a second vote is held, we should watch carefully. The parallels with the British case are obvious; we voted to leave on the back of extravagant promises of being able to sell to the EU without inhibition, and without accepting free movement. We were told we would look johnny foreigner in the eye, and he would blink. Two months on, our eyes are starting to water. Two years from now we may find – as the Swiss have – that our appetite for going it alone has waned.  

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The contradictions within the Leave camp will, at that point, be very clear. Once voters are faced with choosing between limited or no further controls on immigration, and limited or no special access to the single market, they may well feel that they were sold a pup. It might then be sensible to follow the Swiss and call another referendum. At the very least, another referendum would give voters a choice on the terms of Brexit.The Norwegian model of staying in the single market looks very different from going solo under World Trade Organisation rules. If the mood changes radically, Remain could be on the ballot again.

Of course, the UK’s history, geography and place in the world are quite unlike Switzerland’s. There may not be an appetite in the UK for another referendum on the EU. But Switzerland’s dilemma underlines the complexity and unforeseen consequences of the UK’s highly emotional vote for Leave. It’s a message from the Alps to the Pennines.

Edited by Michael Prest

3 Responses to “Swiss send a message from the Alps to the Pennines”

  • Sir,

    Before reading your article today, just before the Referendum I happened upon the YouTube video ‘Brexit the Movie – a Swiss Response’, which makes for educational viewing regarding Switzerland’s long experience of negotiating trade deals with the EU, including 10 years in economic doldrums.

    I now firmly believe that each and every UK team negotiating new arrangements with the EU and other individual countries should have a Swiss negotiator as ‘expert’ on their team.

    We are following in their footsteps in seeking a special external relationship, and in addition they have just completed the highly successful Gotthard rail tunnel, on budget and on time, thanks to expert negotiation with a range of EU Members.

    Their experience would bring skills support to UK teams, whilst saving time and resources which all European countries do not really have to spare for the Brexit negotiations.

    During WW1 neutral Switzerland was host to 68 000 badly wounded PoWs (including my grandfather) as internees from all combatant countries. It now has an opportunity to once again demonstrate its constructive status as a good European. Facilitating negotiations for the UK, could also help prevent a freeze in its own nearly finalised negotiations with the EU, as Brexit pushes to the head of the queue for attention. Surely, for Switzerland, the UK and the rest of Europe this could be a Win Win Win?

    Susie Kershaw
    Multi-Language Project Facilitator
    SK Associates

    +44 (0)1243 839930
    +44 (0)7770 720371
    skype: susie.kershaw
    16 Winchester Drive
    Chichester PO19 5DE
    [email protected]

  • The Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland will have to have a hard boarder put in place. The Real IRA are setting up the cells and as the recent discovery of a 500lb home made bomb on the point of being delivered. They are going to play hard ball or its a united Ireland. Our UK government “Conservative UNIONIST Party are the other contestant. Back 30 years and bring out the hate from the cupboard.
    Cancel Br-exit could make the game changer?!!

  • Very clear. Very obvious.

    And those of us who consider the the vote to leave the EU an unmitigated disaster, should stop pussyfooting around – as even your blog does – saying Brexit is Brexit. It isn’t, because noone knows or has ever known what Brexit means. Ergo the vote was held on a non-existent premise in which ‘to leave the EU’ had no known meaning (as opposed to remaining, which meant the status quo and thus had a meaning).

    The FT’s exemplary Free Lunch economics blog has already described the economic consequences of Brexit to be an unmitigated disaster now – let alone what they will be if Brexit actually happens.