Brexit: who wants a Swiss-style EU deal and what would it look like?

In Europe

Brexit is slowly but surely creeping back on to the agenda as the blame game intensifies over Britain’s poor growth and looming recession.

Discussion of the effects of the UK leaving the EU were quickly drowned out in the weeks after 31 January 2020 as the Covid pandemic took hold. Since then, much of MPs’ economic focus has been on the fallout from lockdowns, global supply chain issues and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

However, after recent market turmoil caused by Liz Truss’s premiership, and her successor Rishi Sunak’s attempts to salvage the UK economy, attention is starting to turn to the impact of Brexit.

Unresolved issues with staff shortages, costly and more bureaucratic hurdles for businesses that want to import goods or trade with Europe, and Northern Ireland’s political crisis have put fresh scrutiny on the terms of Boris Johnson’s deal.

After it was reported that senior government figures want the UK to pursue close ties with the EU, we take a look at what those would mean and the political ramifications.

What has been suggested?

It has been claimed that some inside government want to put the UK on a path to a Swiss-style relationship with the EU.

The discussions are said to be happening behind the scenes, but the chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s suggestion that he wants to reduce trade barriers with Brussels has been interpreted as evidence of a desire for a refreshed relationship.

There is no suggestion of a return to freedom of movement, but the Sunday Times said ministers felt relations between the UK and EU were thawing given the shared challenges caused by inflation and the war in Ukraine.

What would a Swiss-style deal look like?

Switzerland is outside the EU, but it is the bloc’s fourth biggest trading partner and its economy is closely integrated with those of the 27 member states.

It has selective access to the single market and participates in EU research and education programmes, and is signed up to the Schengen free travel area. Notably, it also contributes to the EU budget.

To ensure the smooth trade of goods across borders, the EU-Swiss agreement removes all documentary and identity checks, most physical checks and most veterinary certificates.

It is a complicated relationship. The UK in a Changing Europe thinktank notes that Switzerland has to accept package deals from the EU that include elements of legislation it has been opposed to.

It said such agreements were frequently refreshed to reflect changes in EU law, with every bill presented to the Swiss federal parliament examined for compatibility with EU law.

Haven’t we been here before?

Brussels’ Brexit negotiator, Maroš Šefčovič, offered a Swiss-style trading agreement last June, but the UK side, led by David Frost, rejected it because it required regulatory alignment.

The move was touted given the failure to end Brexit border checks on food, including chilled meats, entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

Šefčovič said in June 2021 that a Swiss-style deal would remove all documentary and physical checks on red meat, poultry, mince, fish and dairy, and that pets would be able to travel between Great Britain and Northern Ireland with a pet passport.

What has the reaction been?

Steve Barclay, who is the health secretary but used to run the Brexit department, has rubbished the suggestion that a Swiss-style deal is being considered.

The former cabinet minister Liam Fox has also said there were always some senior ministers who would have preferred a Swiss-style solution after Brexit, but stressed he believed it was “time to put these ideas to bed and get on with the job in hand”.

Tracking by the opinion pollster YouGov, however, reveals that the number of Britons who think it was the wrong decision to leave the EU is at its highest point since the aftermath of the referendum, at 56%, compared with 32% who believe it was the right decision.

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