Senior Eurosceptics have warned Prime Minister Rishi Sunak against sacrificing Brexit “liberties” by seeking a closer Swiss-style trading relationship with the EU.
Senior government figures have spoken of the evolution of UK-EU relations over time so that friction over trade is minimized, pointing to the relative ease of trade flows between the EU and Switzerland.
Sunak’s allies said the UK prime minister wants to reduce barriers to trade with the EU and is determined to resolve the simmering dispute over the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol and improve relations with Brussels.
But talk in high government circles of a long-term relationship reflecting the trade proximity between the EU and Switzerland – reported by the Sunday Times and endorsed by the Financial Times – even if not on the same terms.
Switzerland pays money into the EU budget and aligns closely with the bloc’s laws to secure access to the single market – a model rejected by senior ministers and Eurosceptics in negotiations with Brussels.
Lord David Frost, the former Brexit secretary, said that if the reports were true, he hoped the government would “think better about these plans, and quickly”. Frost negotiated a “hard” Brexit that kept Britain out of the single market.
Simon Clarke, a Conservative MP and former government minister, said: “I very much hope and believe that this is not something that is under consideration. We have settled the issue of leaving the EU, permanently, in 2019.”
“This level of betrayal will never be forgiven,” said Nigel Farage, former Ukip leader.
While senior government figures have said they want to remove barriers to trade with the EU, like Switzerland, they insist it will not be on the same terms. One of them said: “The Swiss model is not being considered”.
Steve Barclay, another former Brexit minister and now health minister, said he did not “acknowledge” the reports, but said it was essential Britain did not jeopardize the “opportunities” gained from leaving the EU.
Barclay said the Brexit negotiated by Frost and former prime minister Boris Johnson allowed Britain to set its own rules in areas such as financial services, green technology and artificial intelligence. “So it’s very important…we’re really using our Brexit freedoms,” he told Sophie Ridge at Skeyes.
“We have a prime minister who himself supported Brexit,” he added. “I did it myself and I was Brexit Secretary, working hard to maximize our control over our laws, our borders and our money.”
Last week, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt claimed it would be possible to remove the “vast majority” of trade barriers with the EU. But as with Sunak looking to resolve the standoff with Brussels over Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trading regime, the details are very problematic.
The EU has made it clear that Britain cannot enjoy a single market access unless it applies EU rules and accepts the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, and has long denounced London’s favored “cherry picking” style.
While some senior government officials see Switzerland’s trade relationship with the EU as a potential long-term model in terms of reducing friction and bureaucracy, many Tory MPs will oppose related compromises.
Switzerland is a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and has a very close relationship with the European Union established through around 120 bilateral agreements covering trade, services and free movement of people.
Attempts to justify that web of deals collapsed in May last year into a single, sweeping ‘framework agreement’, in which the EU demanded that Switzerland come into deeper alignment with EU law and accept the bloc’s court as the final arbiter of the deal.
Although Switzerland is not a member state of the European Union, it is partially and deeply integrated into the EU single market and has to “dynamically align its laws” with EU law in relevant areas to maintain this access.
During the Brexit negotiations, the European Commission was also adamant that the UK should not view the Swiss arrangement as a model for future relations, arguing that the size and proximity of the UK economy made this relationship too problematic.
Labor said it would not adopt the Swiss model if it won the next election, but favored a detailed deal with the UK, including agreements on farming and mutual recognition of professional qualifications.