Richard North, 11/08/2018  

We started off this campaign more years ago than I care to remember with three basic options. There was the WTO Option, which was never a starter. Then there was the Swiss Option, favourite of the likes of Dan Hannan, and then there was the so-called Norway Option.

The Norway Option became our preferred option not by a process of selection but by one of elimination. Having ruled out the WTO option for very obvious reasons, the reservations applying to the Swiss Option were so great that this too was ruled out. This left only one standing.

Since that time, and with increasing intensity after the referendum, we find ourselves rehearsing the same arguments, plus having to take on sundry other variations invented by attention-seeking clever-dicks.

But basically, options remain the same, whatever names you give them. There is the unilateral option – aka WTO option or "no deal" scenario. Then there is the bilateral option. You can call it the Swiss Option, or a CETA variant, or anything else you like. But they all amount to the same thing – a bespoke agreement between the UK and the EU.

Then there is the multilateral option – joining an arrangement settled by other countries and already in operation. The only working example of this is the Efta/EEA option, still called the "Norway Option" by many.

Currently, we're having to struggle with the extended stupidity of the "Ultras" embracing the "WTO Option", while there is some renewed interest in the Efta/EEA Option, the effect of which is to shunt the Swiss Option into the background, where it lingers in relative obscurity – occasionally promoted by its original advocates such as Hannan.

However, while we are preoccupied with Brexit, life goes on. And it may come as a surprise that we're not the only ones negotiating a treaty with the EU. Switzerland has been back in the fray, discussing new arrangements to update their existing treaty arrangements.

The plan was to tidy up the messy group of a hundred or so separate treaties, talks on which have been going on for some considerable time. And, at the end of June, the Swiss government was deciding whether there had been enough progress to settle a political deal that would lead to a brand new treaty.

The intention that it should be signed in 2019, the same year that the UK was due to leave the EU with its own withdrawal agreement. Any deal would then be put to a binding referendum, allowing the Swiss people to decide their own future.

Amongst the key issues on the table is conflict resolution, with the EU finally losing patience the separate arrangements and wanting the ECJ to act as the main arbitrator in settling legal disputes. The use of "foreign judges", however, was likely to be a no-go area for the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), giving them a political edge in the 2019 federal elections.

This had caused Juncker to come up with a different proposal for independent arbitration panels which had gone some way to defusing Swiss concerns. But another contentious area was the provision by the Swiss government of state aid, which the EU wanted stopped.

The most contentious issue though was the Swiss system of "flanking measures" – steps adopted in 2004 to prevent foreign workers on temporary assignments in Switzerland (the so-called posted workers) to undercut local wages and conditions. To date, the Swiss government has declared this a no-go area for the talks.

It has come as no great surprise, therefore, to see a report that talks have broken down and that a new EU-Swiss treaty is as "dead as [a] doornail".

The "killer" has been an alliance between the normally pro-EU centre-left Social Democrats (SP) and the SVP, united behind Swiss labour unions in saying that the deal would undermine wages and working conditions. Officially talks are on hold, with a new round of negotiations planned after the summer break, but no one is optimistic that progress is likely.

There are now fears that the failure of the talks will precipitate a a new diplomatic ice age, prompting the EU to take punitive steps against the Swiss. The Commission, for instance, has indicated that it may not renew Swiss equity traders access to the EU Member State markets beyond 2018.

Where this gets really interesting is in the observation that Brexit has made it more difficult for the EU to make concessions. But it puts the Swiss government in a confrontational position, potentially making it an ally of the UK. There must certainly be a commonality of interest sufficient to allow tentative discussions between the UK and Swiss governments.

Given the recent history or relations between the EU and Swiss, where immigration has become a serious bone of contention, it is arguable that one of the biggest mistakes the Swiss people made was in rejecting membership of the EEA. After all, the initial use of Art 112 of the EEA Agreement was a joint affair by Switzerland and Liechtenstein.

Had Switzerland remained in the EEA, it too could have sought a sectoral agreement with the EEA which would have given it a permanent right to control immigration. And if the posted workers issue became a problem, the Swiss government could just as easily invoke safeguard measures.

On that basis, rather than even considering the Swiss Option as a way of settling Brexit, the UK might be better advised to seek an alliance with the Swiss, bringing it back into the EEA fold, and supporting UK entry into Efta, with a commitment to jointly resolving immigration issues through the medium of the EEA Agreement.

With the UK on its own, negotiations were always going to be difficult so the possibility of securing a like-minded ally is something the UK should take very seriously indeed.

And this is where there is a considerable lack of imagination on the part of Mrs May and her government. The UK is by no means alone in having reservations on the application of freedom of movement. And concerns about the brain drain from Eastern Europe gives us common cause with Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania and the Slovak Republic.

Another issue here are financial payments made by Efta/EEA states, particularly those made by Norway in the form of Norway/EEA grants. Wrongly treated as contributions to the EU budget by some pundits, payments are made directly by the donor countries to the recipients, on projects which they themselves approve.

There is some suggestion that the UK within the Efta/EEA nexus could allocate funds from the aid budget and, in retaining control over their disbursement, is in a position to use grants as leverage, to secure political advantage.

In short, the UK has significant opportunities to pursue migration policies which are more to its liking, bearing in mind that it is unlikely that we will be seeking major reductions in workers coming from EU/EEA members. The essential point is that the UK government should be seen to be in control.

The central problem here, therefore, is not so much the lack of opportunity but the refusal of Mrs May to step outside her own, self-imposed limitations. If she could break her obsession with the discredited Chequers/White Paper plan and look at the issues in the round, new possibilities beckon.

Similarly – but possibily even less likely – if the media could break away from its love affair with trivia and look seriously at the alternatives, we could perhaps start having a debate about real possibilities instead of their hothouse fantasies.

For the moment, though, the national media have been virtually silent on the Swiss situation and constantly misrepresent the Efta/EEA option. Almost without exception, any reference to our continued participation in the EEA Agreement includes the claim that we would still have to accept freedom of movement.

Nothing, it seems, can survive the venality of a media determined to get it wrong and where their disinformation reinforces the ignorance of the politicians there can be little hope of any progress. Possibilities there may be – but they remain invisible.

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