Prime minister Rishi Sunak has been warned by senior Eurosceptics not to sacrifice the “freedoms” of Brexit by pursuing a closer, Swiss-style trading relationship with the EU.
Senior government figures have talked about the UK-EU relationship evolving over time so that friction on trade is minimised, citing the relative ease with which trade flows between the EU and Switzerland.
Allies of Sunak said the UK prime minister wanted to reduce barriers to trade with the EU and was determined to resolve the festering dispute over the so-called Northern Ireland protocol and improve relations with Brussels.
But talk in senior government circles of a longer term relationship that echoes the trading proximity of the EU and Switzerland — reported by the Sunday Times and corroborated by the Financial Times — has alarmed some Brexiters.
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 Eurosceptics in negotiations with Brussels.
Lord David Frost, former Brexit secretary, said that if the reports were correct he hoped “the government thinks better of these plans, fast”. Frost negotiated the “hard” Brexit that kept Britain at arm’s length from the single market.
Simon Clarke, a Tory MP and former cabinet minister said: “I very much hope and believe this isn’t something under consideration. We settled the question of leaving the EU, definitively, in 2019.”
Nigel Farage, the former Ukip leader, said: “This level of betrayal will never be forgiven.”
Steve Barclay, another former Brexit secretary and now health secretary, said he did not “recognise” the reports, but said it was vital that Britain did not jeopardise the “opportunities” gained by 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 absolutely important . . . that we really use the Brexit freedoms we have,” he told Sky’s Sophy Ridge.
“We’ve got a prime minister who himself supported Brexit,” he added. “I myself did and was Brexit secretary, and worked very hard to maximise our control of 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’s aspiration to resolve the stand-off with Brussels over Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trading regime, the detail is highly problematic.
The EU has made it clear that Britain cannot enjoy single market access unless it applies EU rules and accepts the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and has long decried the “cherry picking” approach favoured in London.
While some senior government officials see Swiss-EU trading relations as a potential model in the longer term in terms of cutting friction and bureaucracy, many Tory MPs would oppose the compromises involved.
Switzerland is a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and has a very close relationship with Europe created by a dense patchwork of some 120 bilateral agreements covering trade, services and free movement of people.
Attempts to rationalise that network of deals into a single overarching ‘framework agreement’, in which the EU demanded the Swiss align more deeply with EU law and accept the bloc’s court as final arbiter of the deal, collapsed in May last year.
Although not an EU member state, Switzerland 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 that access.
During the Brexit negotiations the European Commission was also adamant that the UK should not look at the Swiss arrangement as a paradigm for future relations, arguing the size and proximity of the UK economy made such a relationship highly problematic.
Labour said it would not adopt the Swiss model if it won the next election, but favoured a bespoke deal with the UK, including agreements on agriculture and mutual recognition of professional qualifications.