The Reverse Swiss Opportunity for the Pro-European Campaign

In 1992 the Swiss rejected EEA membership by 50.3% to 49.7% in a referendum. It was a vote that highlighted deeper cultural divisions in the country.

It’s quite difficult not to look at the result and draw parallels with our own 2016 referendum, and the subsequent 28 years in Switzerland could hold the answer to the ‘what next?’ question for the Liberal Democrats’ future position on Europe.

Following the 1992 referendum the Swiss suspended their application to join the EEA and in 1997 withdrew it altogether. However, through a series of bilateral agreements Switzerland is essentially a member of the Single Market and adheres to many European Union rules including freedom of movement. Switzerland has long been held up by Brexit supporters as an example of how a country can operate outside the EU, Boris Johnson himself was laughed at by Robert Peston in an interview for drawing the comparison in a rather insincere manner.

But as we exit the European Union this week, Switzerland could also become the model for UK realignment.

Since the 1992 referendum, the Swiss have voted in a further 11 referenda on Europe, rejecting outright membership on 3 occasions but voting in favour of a number of bilateral agreements that have aligned them with the EU and allowed them access to the common market.

So why did the Swiss say no to outright membership and yes to the other agreements?

The answer is the word bilateral which allows the Swiss to believe they are sitting at the table with the EU as equals rather than just another member state.

The perceived loss of sovereignty was a key driving force behind the Brexit vote and it would just not be possible to sell an outright rejoin position to the British public, potentially even in the longer-term. Frankly, the terms of becoming a member in future would probably not be in the best interests of the UK and we would almost certainly have to join the Euro and Schengen which the electorate would not swallow.

Selling the benefits of a close relationship with Europe whilst protecting the UK’s collective ego would be a much easier task.

The best way forward then for a pro-European campaign would be to use the Swiss bilateral approach to build up closer alignment or even third-party status with the EU and then, as Tom Brake said previously, explore the possibilities of what could be next.

This all sounds very long-term and far away, but actually faced with an unrealistic deadline of agreeing a free trade deal of just 11 months, the idea has been floated, mainly on the European side, of what is essentially a ‘reverse Swiss’.

Despite the posturing of not moving the deadline by the UK Government, the idea of reaching agreements on various aspects of our relationship with the EU while using the option to extend the transition agreement on the areas that have yet to be agreed has gained some traction. In much the same way that Switzerland built its relationship with the EU by treaty, the UK would unpick theirs. This would allow Boris Johnson to point to some sort of agreement by the year-end deadline but give him more time to reach the comprehensive agreement.

If the government does go with the reverse Swiss, then the unpicking of our relationship with the EU could last the full transition period extension of 2 years, and who knows, potentially longer should the negotiations not go well.

If the wind changes politically over that time, the journey back to a closely aligned or third-party status with the EU might not be that complicated to navigate.

* Darren Martin is the Press and Communications Officer for the Hackney Lib Dems.

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  • I am extremely dubious.

    Firstly the EU now regards the arrangements that have been built up as a patchwork with Switzerland as somewhat unsatisfactory, and I believe intends to avoid repetition with any other country.

    Secondly, it leaves the UK as a rule taker. Neither Switzerland (despite any illusions Swiss citizens may have) nor the UK can negotiate as an equal with the EU, given the differences in population and GDP.

  • Darren Martin 27th Jan '20 - 7:13pm

    @Mohammed Amin I completely agree that a treaty by treaty arrangement would leave us as rule takers and is nowhere as good as remaining. But we can’t remain and so we need a path back. Removing the loss of sovereignty from the debate, whether it is right to believe we ever lost any or not, makes it easier for us to argue for realignment in the future. It’s easier for the electorate to swallow.
    In terms of the EU being in favour of the ‘Reverse Swiss’ during negotiations for an FTA- it gives us a longer timetable and prevents a disorderly crash out which they are in favour of for obvious reasons.

  • We are still faced with the problem that we have never had a national discussion on the real European Union. There has been a strong campaign about an imaginary EU which decides the shape of our bananas. The result of this is that we allow the prime minister to celebrate his success in negotiating a worse interim agreement than was achieved by the previous prime minister and opposed by him.
    We still do not know what the prime minister is aiming for, but we seem to be too polite to ask him.
    Could we not start by sharing within our own party the facts about the EU?

  • Maybe Associate Membership would be the best compromise position…..

  • David Garlick 29th Jan '20 - 3:11pm

    Interesting and informative. Sadly I doubt Boris de whatsit will be smart enough. Mr C might be.

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