British politics might be abuzz with talk of a “Swiss-style” relationship with the European Union — but the mood on the Continent is one of polite bemusement.
U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was this week forced to push back at a report in the Sunday Times that “senior government figures” in his fledgling administration are interested in a deal with the EU akin to Switzerland’s complex relationship with the bloc. One EU diplomat said the whole row felt like “London talking to London.”
The private thinking in some of Westminster’s corridors of power, the paper reported, was that the U.K. should pursue frictionless trade by “moving towards a Swiss-style relationship over the next decade.”
Switzerland is outside the EU and the European Economic Area, but it enjoys strong trade ties with the bloc, and has selective access to its single market as well as participation in the Schengen visa-free travel area and EU research and education schemes. In turn, Switzerland accepts closer alignment with EU laws.
Pressed on the report Monday, Sunak told a gathering of business leaders in Birmingham: “On trade, let me be unequivocal about this. Under my leadership the United Kingdom will not pursue any relationship with Europe that relies on alignment with EU laws.”
He added: “Now I voted for Brexit, I believe in Brexit, and I know that Brexit can deliver – and is already delivering – enormous benefits and opportunities for the country.”
But the comments came just days after Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, who backed staying in the EU in 2016, pledged to remove the “vast majority of trade barriers” with the EU to boost growth.
Conservative Brexiteers have already reacted with anger to the two suggestions, and the European Research Group — a pro-Brexit group of Tory MPs who were the thorn in the side of Theresa May at the height of the U.K.’s Brexit battles — is being closely watched for cries of betrayal.
Stewart Jackson, a former MP and government Brexit adviser who now runs a public affairs consultancy, said the new government had enough on its plate without “going to war with the ERG” which he reckons still have “more than enough sympathetic supporters” to “cause real trouble” for Sunak.
Yet while Sunak’s government tries to hose down the report, the EU has yet to be presented with anything concrete.
“There’s nothing to comment on because there’s no proposal,” one EU diplomat said, adding that the EU would, of course, be very happy to review one. “I’m not trying to be flippant, but what would the proposal be?”
The EU, the diplomat said, wouldn’t react until London actually put something forward. “It comes back to a little bit that’s been ongoing for a long time: it seems to be London talking to London and London trying to figure out what London can accept,” he said. “I’m getting bored of giving the same answer.”
European Commission spokesperson Daniel Ferrie struck a similar tone, telling media in Brussels Monday that “that any relationship between the European Union and a third country is based on the balance of rights and obligations” — in this case governed by the existing Brexit divorce deals.
Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič had, Ferrie noted, already suggested Swiss-style agreements on sanitary and phytosanitary rules as a way to reduce trade friction. Those would, he said, “involve alignment with EU rules — EU SPS rules — and therefore, as a result, reduced checks and controls are the majority of SPs checks and controls.”
In Birmingham, England, where Sunak gave his speech, one business leader also gave short shrift to talk of more deal-making, even while backing the idea that a country expected to enter a “prolonged recession” needs to be “looking around the world for trade and export growth opportunities.”
“Rather than speculating around a deal that actually isn’t on the table — and the government confirmed that isn’t the case — what we should be focused on is finishing the deal that’s on the table that the former Prime Minister Boris Johnson negotiated,” said Matthew Fell, policy chief for the Confederation of British Industry.
“Get the Northern Ireland protocol sorted,” he added, referring to the long-running row over trade rules for Northern Ireland that has proved a drag on U.K. and EU ties. “That can unjam stronger collaboration on innovation, mutual recognition of skills, and so on. Let’s get focused on implementing the deal that we do have, rather than speculating about a deal that we don’t have.”
Matt Honeycombe-Foster contributed reporting.