Jacqueline Breidlid and Cenni Najy (EGMONT – The Royal Institute for International Relations)
In the context of the outcome of the British referendum on the continued membership of the United Kingdom in the EU, the country now needs to find its “Plan B”. The Swiss model appears to be one of the possible models of a non-Member State of the Union, which the United Kingdom could follow. However, could the agreements signed between the EU and Switzerland really be a suitable alternative for both the EU and the UK?
It is often pointed out that the situation in which Switzerland found itself when it was negotiating with the EU is similar to that the United Kingdom is faced with today. Based on the current data, Britain would become the EU’s second largest trading partner following its exit. However, unlike Switzerland, the UK is bigger and therefore it could be doing better in the negotiations. However, there are differences that erode that theory. One of them is the fact that in case of Switzerland, the agreements were negotiated with only 15 Member States compared to today’s 27. The negotiations could then take even longer than in the case of Switzerland, as it took nearly ten years to finalize the negotiations of its first agreements with the block.
Another important difference is that the treaties with Switzerland should have only been for a transitional period before the country was to become a part of the EU, which does not apply in case of Britain. Switzerland also voluntarily implements the European legislation, when Bern for instance allows imports from the EU countries without any additional controls or confirmation, although it gets nothing in return. Switzerland also generally seeks to maximize consistency with EU policies and thus is also often referred to as a “passive executor” of EU law.
British Eurosceptics also often argue that after the United Kingdom has left the EU, it will not have to contribute to the EU budget. To that end, however, one important fact is often overlooked and it is that non-EU countries such as Norway and Switzerland contribute indirectly to the EU budget in the form of various projects, including, for example, the reduction of economic and social differences or in the form of fees for their participation in EU programs. It is also necessary to take into account that Britain will not only lose access to the EU subsidies, but it will have to replace these by tapping into its own government budget.
Although it is not yet clear what alternative the Brexit proponents would like to see, it is very likely that their demands will not be met as they imagined. In negotiations with bigger entities, small countries like Switzerland are often willing to give up part of their sovereignty in exchange for the opportunity not to join that entity, but it is hard to imagine that Britain would follow this path.