How far could this government go in reversing the referendum vote to leave the European Union? A series of newspaper headlines over the weekend, 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.
‘They want to carry on as if Brexit never happened…’
In other words, 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 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, are testing the water. They’ll come back for more, again and again.
Meanwhile, note the delays, time and time again, in implementing new legislation in agriculture, fisheries and the environment, for example. Or dumping the Northern Ireland Agreement. Everything is being strung out – six years after the referendum – to avoid fixing Britain on an independent path.
What Swiss example?
One great irony is that Switzerland itself does not have the “Swiss-style” relationship that is so widely trumpeted. Locked in a years-long fight with the EU over an aspect of freedom of movement, Switzerland has found itself 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 reaches the end of its term. 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.
On 12 November, though, just a week before the “Swiss-style” headlines appeared, 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 riven by disagreement, mired in economic stagnation and shackled by a failing currency. A bloc of weakness, not strength.