While the EU is increasingly devoid of direction and entangled in debt, the government is reluctant to take the steps needed to secure British independence…
Prime minister Rishi Sunak has, according to newspaper reports, paused all progress on the Northern Ireland Protocol bill. And that, you can be sure, will mean all progress on anything related to Brexit will be halted as well (see “Northern Ireland - Legislation stopped”).
It’s yet another move that raises the question: How far could this government go in reversing the referendum vote to leave the European Union? A series of newspaper headlines, sparked by an article in The Times headed “Britain mulls Swiss-style ties with Brussels” and citing (unnamed) “senior government figures” suggests an answer: as far as it thinks the people will allow it to go.
The idea is to have “frictionless trade” with the EU, as if that could be achieved without accepting free movement of labour along with the supremacy of the European Court and obedience to the tens of thousands of EU regulations and directives.
Carry on regardless
In other words, “senior figures” want to carry on as if Brexit had never happened, as if the British people had never made their decision, as if democracy were merely a technicality, an inconvenience.
The Swiss-style reports were swiftly dismissed by pro-Brexit ministers, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that people like Jeremy Hunt, the pro-EU Chancellor of the Exchequer, aren’t testing the water. They’ll come back for more, again and again.
‘How far could this government go in reversing the vote to leave?’
In agriculture, the government has once again delayed giving English farmers details of the new Environmental Land Management Scheme. Instead of providing clarity, Therese Coffey, the agriculture secretary, told the Country Land and Business Association on 1 December that the details would be provided “early in the new year”.
The association’s president responded by saying that confidence in the scheme was on the brink of “disappearing forever”. He added, “It is unacceptable that payment rates for the new options in the Sustainable Farming Incentive and Local Nature Recovery have not yet been published, particularly for those that relate to 2023, which is less than a month away.”
All this should have been in place for 2022. And government support is vital for British farmers. Previously, when it was provided through the much-criticised EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), Defra estimated that 42 per cent of Britain’s farms would have operated at a loss without it.
Now, six years after the referendum, Defra is still essentially operating under the CAP’s principles – just running it from Westminster. In Scotland, the SNP administration – no doubt ever hopeful of being able to hand over all independence to the EU at some time in the future – decided straightaway to keep the CAP regime until 2024.
British fishermen, meanwhile, continue to struggle with the consequences of the Johnson government’s Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU. Fishing came badly out of the agreement, with government “red lines” being breached left, right and centre.
As a report published this year in the journal Maritime Studies lays out, there is still widespread EU access to British waters, even to the coastal zones which were supposed to be reserved for British fishermen. Despite some “symbolic” victories, say the authors, “in reality the UK has not taken back ‘full control’”.
“As an independent coastal state for the first time in 40 years, access to UK waters will be on our terms, under our control and for the benefit of UK fishermen,” trumpeted Defra’s Michael Gove in 2018. He forgot to add that “our terms” included surrender to the EU.
And the Northern Ireland Agreement continues as a running sore. Once again a new Northern Ireland Secretary is proposing changes. Yet despite the agreement’s evident unworkability, nothing is actually happening. Instead everything is being strung out – six years after the referendum – to avoid fixing Britain on an independent path.
And it is against this background, this refusal to finally cut the apron-strings to Brussels, that the calls for a “Swiss-style” relationship with the EU are surfacing.
One great irony is that Switzerland itself does not have the “Swiss-style” relationship that is so widely trumpeted. It used to, but not any more. And that relationship came with a cost.
“The deal with the EU was always a quid pro quo: barrier-free market access was and is only available at the price of the free movement of persons,” wrote Marc Leutenegger, German editor of Swissinfo (Switzerland’s equivalent of the BBC World Service) in November, shortly after the question was raised in Britain.
In an amusing article telling “Brits” to bury the dream of a Swiss model, he pointedly reminded readers that it no longer exists. “Bilateral relations are in agony,” he said. And, tellingly, he asked whether Britain wanted to be picked on by “playground bully” Brussels – considering how the EU has treated Switzerland.
Locked in a years-long fight with the EU over freedom of movement and disagreement about the reach of the European Court of Justice, Switzerland has found itself uniquely disadvantaged. It has been forced to pay vast amounts to the EU in the name of “cohesion” while seeing Brussels attempt to sabotage its financial centres, and being frozen out of participation in the EU’s huge Horizon research programme.
Brussels has been threatening Switzerland with increasing isolation as each of their more than 120 bilateral agreements reach the end of their term.
‘Switzerland has been forced to pay vast amounts to the EU in the name of “cohesion”…’
The EU has been insisting on one, and only one, overarching “framework” agreement to cover every aspect of its relationship with Switzerland, including full acceptance of freedom of movement and the supremacy of the European Court.
The negotiations between Switzerland and the EU to end the impasse make Britain’s dealings with the bloc seem rapid by comparison. The argument over a framework agreement has been going on since 2014.
On 12 November, though, just a week before the “Swiss-style” headlines appeared in the British press, Switzerland’s chief EU negotiator said she had agreed with Brussels to aim instead for a series of bilateral deals.
The language is woolly – agreeing to aim for something is not the same as agreeing to do it – and apparently issues need to be clarified, “most notably on free movement”.
But if the report is true, it would represent a stunning victory for the Swiss, and a clear reminder to nations inside and outside the EU that Brussels is merely a façade of power and authority.
Behind the arrogance and strutting, the EU is a bloc of weakness, riven by disagreement, mired in economic stagnation and shackled by a failing currency. No one need bow down before it.
• Related article: The EU: a bloc of stagnation