This week British Trade Minister, Mark Price, was in the Swiss capital talking trade and immigration. On Monday it’s the turn of the EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and during his visit we may see hints of the EU’s approach to negotiating Brexit with London.
While Mr Price wanted to know more about how the Swiss were managing their own EU deal with Brussels in order to learn lessons for the future EU/UK deal, Mr. Juncker will want to make a stand on the free movement of labour in part as a warning to the British not to expect compromise on the issue.
Switzerland has more than 100 bilateral agreements with the EU and through them has access to the European Single Market despite not being a member. The major quid pro quo is that Switzerland must accept EU workers. However, this position has been complicated by the February 2014 referendum vote to limit immigration which must be implemented by February 2017.
Something has to give. The parliament in Bern is hammering out legislation to make it law that Swiss citizens be given priority for jobs, but immigration will still be allowed. The assumption is that fewer people will come to the country if jobs are harder to find.
Depending on the wording, and the interpretation of it in Brussels, this might fly, but Mr. Juncker may still bristle against it. What probably would not fly is the modified legislation the Swiss Christian Democratic People’s Party wants – to prioritize jobs for Swiss people but also to impose fixed quotas on immigration from EU countries.
Juncker will not buy that, and he will be supported by many EU countries. He knows if he gives in on that issue in Switzerland, the precedent will be set for the British to follow suit.
In the event that both countries got what Brussels would consider a ‘soft deal’ it would encourage other EU members to consider quitting the union under similar agreements.
So, the Swiss deal is well worth watching for its implications on which model of relationship with the EU the UK thinks it should use as a template while simultaneously shaping a one off agreement.
Mr. Juncker’s wants ‘ever closer union’ (Ecu), not a free trade zone, and is likely to play hardball with both Bern and London. However, the Ecu supporters risk actually breaking the Union if they rush to achieve their aim. The winds of resistance are blowing hard against them at both political party level in Europe and in public opinion.
It’s a delicate balancing act, but the instincts of the Ecus will be to charge ahead and simultaneously send signals that leaving the union would be painful. It’s going to be a bruising debate.
Back in Britain the pro Brexit lobby is already growing impatient with Prime Minister May’s quiet deliberations on a timetable to leave. However, that is to mistake silence for indecision. There are many moving parts to moving out of the EU as the Swiss negotiations show us. She’s waiting to see the next move before making her own.