The first Swiss lesson for Brexit Britain: Negotiations never end

Opinion piece (Prospect)
30 May 2018

Like Switzerland we will always be arguing over something or other with the superpower on our doorstep.

Switzerland regularly finds itself lassoed into the Brexit debate, because of its unusual relationship with the European Union. This is to be expected. Switzerland is a prosperous country, sitting within Europe yet not within the EU. The EU-Swiss relationship is a product of its time and the EU is reluctant to base the future UK-EU relationship on one that gives it a constant headache. However, there are lessons from the Swiss experience that the UK and its policy makers would do well to take on board.

First, contrary to the wishes of many, the Brexit negotiations will never truly end. The UK, like Switzerland, will find itself negotiating something or other with the superpower on its doorstep long after the ink has dried on the withdrawal agreement. Different UK governments will want access to different EU programmes and initiatives. A future government may even want to converge further. And to achieve that it will need to negotiate.

Since the signing of its first free trade agreement with the EU in 1972, Switzerland has entered into a permanent state of negotiation and has gone on to finalise around 100 bilateral treaties with the EU. Likewise, the UK’s defining international relationship will continue to be with the EU.

Second, the UK should take a leaf from the Swiss playbook and learn not to challenge the EU on its fundamental principles head on, be it free movement of people, the role of the European Court of Justice or the indivisibility of the four freedoms. Instead, as the Swiss are keen to stress in private, flexibility can be found when it comes to the implementation. For example, in 2014 the Swiss public voted to restrict freedom of movement in a referendum. Rather than allowing it to jeopardise the entire EU-Swiss relationship, both parties eventually settled upon a compromise whereby freedom of movement continued, but Swiss job seekers were given preference in places with an above average unemployment rate.

Finally, as a country that will now be negotiating with the EU, not within it, the UK will find itself primarily the demandeur when it comes to future arrangements. And as the smaller party, like Switzerland, the UK will, more often than not, need to suck up whatever concessions the EU demands of it. While some hold out hope that the UK may one day re-join the EU, having realised the folly of its ways, the Swiss experience suggests that an institutionalised process of ritual political humiliation will only harden domestic eurosceptic sentiment.

So there are indeed lessons to be learned from the Swiss. But above all else the British should brace themselves for the fact that Brexit is very much a process and not an event. In five, ten, 20 years’ time, what may look like closure will only ever be the beginning of the next round of negotiations.

Sam Lowe is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.