24 November 2022

What should we make of ‘Swiss-style deal’ Brexit stories?


‘Britain mulls Swiss-style ties with Brussels’ ran the Sunday Times headlines. Peculiarly, the date of publication was not 2017 but last weekend.

‘Senior government sources’ were claiming that ‘senior government figures’ are planning to put Britain on the path towards a revamped relationship with the European Union. Whether the sources and the figures were one and the same, or if the latter even existed, was a moot point as the hand grenade in the plunge bath kicked up the inevitable plume of backbench blowback.

So what’s going on? Might it have been a casual attempt by a moonlighting minister to dig up old graves, in order to plant further seeds of Brexit doubt? Perhaps it was part of an internal powerplay over the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP); or a muddled attempt to explain where the NIP talks were roughly heading; or even an offhand and overinterpreted comment demonstrating fundamental ignorance, even now, of how the various models actually work. 

Casual Kremlinology isn’t up to working any of this out. The effect, though, was to demonstrate that Brexiteer MPs are still vigilant on big issues, even if on points of individual detail old-school salami slicing of sovereignty remains a persistent threat. Lone infiltrators slip past the sentries; we are still waiting for the small print on what’s in the new UK-EU text facilitating the trans-border movement clauses of PESCO, the EU’s emerging Defence structure – these deals, with their endorsement of direction of travel, act as fly paper to the unwary.

But why is anyone mooting a ‘Swiss-style relationship’?

Interestingly, despite coverage to the contrary the original report doesn’t say a ‘Swiss deal’, since no such thing exists – the arrangement Switzerland has with the EU isn’t a ‘deal’, but a lattice work of over 120 separate treaties.

On one level the reference is not contentious. The UK over time will also sign up to many bilaterals with the EU on minor issues. As a comparison, the last time I counted, the EU and US had 62 such (plus another 85 multilateral ones to which both were party). The inference here, however, is that some really big deals will also significantly deepen the relationship. Citing Switzerland implies increased EU migration, much bigger payments to the EU budget, and a constant struggle to keep the Court of Justice away from acting as arbiter – in other words, reneging on what the Vote Leave campaign said Brexit would look like. So the exact claim is less important than the suggestion of direction of travel. 

The Commission, as it happens, is not a fan either. In fact, it hates the Swiss arrangement because it makes its life administratively awkward (democracy does that to bureaucracies: it’s easier to have uniformity and invisible committees running things, ideally ones you are in charge of). Swiss Eurosceptics themselves are also chary about it: a dispute over free movement clauses triggered not only Commission retaliation, but talks were even deliberately sat on during the Brexit vote and the subsequent negotiations as a symbol of wider deterrence. 

While it is true that a decade ago British Eurosceptics were more open-minded with the precedent as a way forward, that was before arch Remainers turned to deploying such formats merely as staging posts back into full membership. The Swiss approach only works to the extent that it does because of the nation’s intensely accountable and directly democratic system, one that thrives on referenda, rather than bare-knuckling its way through them. Its politicians and civil servants have to argue and fight for more integration with the EU; ours sleepwalk into it.

Meanwhile, the reality is that the Commission, from Michel Barnier onwards, could have been flexible but has chosen not to be. It demanded sequencing and the UK paying for its share of EU assets, because it saw that our government was weak and disorientated and consciously chose to take advantage of it. That gave Barnier big wins, including over Ulster, but at the cost of demonstrating intense bad faith.

It could have acted otherwise. There have been examples of loose interpretations of its trade borders (East Germany, Algeria, Cyprus) matched only by the Commission’s ingenious elasticity in reinterpreting treaty clauses to authorise more power for itself. Additionally, contrary to Barnier’s famous powerpoint slide, there are not half a dozen models but 65 different historical types of arrangement as to how the EU links up with other parties, and those arrangements have themselves been adjusted over time.

In the UK’s case, the starting point is one of historic compliance with EU standards and norms, and so the relationship could always have been crafted as a matter of responding to slow divergence and de-compliance. The scope and authority and opportunity has always been there to make Brexit work. But what is so often overlooked by commentators is that the Commission as the negotiator is an interested party in its own right.

All of this has been said before, of course – the latest Swiss reference merely reminds us of it. The question now is whether that Barnier-style pettifogging is now a locked feature of the Brussels mindset, and Whitehall thus has to default to minimal outreach with the Euroblob. What emerges from the courteous and heroic restraint of our current Northern Ireland ministers will soon reveal the answer. We can but hope.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Dr Lee Rotherham is Director of The Red Cell, a Brexit think tank.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.