EU Neighbourhood Watch – Monitoring EU relations with the UK and Switzerland – July 2022

"Neighbourhood Watch" by exfordy is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Every month, Brussels Report’s editor-in-chief Pieter Cleppe provides an update on how EU interactions with its economically most important neighbours, the United Kingdom and Switzerland, have been going.

“Plus ça change” really is a good summary of Swiss-EU relations. The Swiss government now wants to “step up” exploratory talks with the EU, in a bid to try to resolving the differences, but the country simply sticks to its position, just like the EU side. Statements are being exchanged from both sides, with the European Commission sending Switzerland “10 questions”, something which was perceived as “homework” by Bern. Meanwhile, Members of European Parliament and Europe’s leading business federation are complaining about the Swiss-EU gridlock.

Switzerland did move on one thing, which is to pledge the “full implementation” of the free movement of persons between Switzerland and the EU.

Meanwhile, the debate on the European Commission blocking the U.K. and Switzerland from EU scientific spending programme “Horizon Europe” is heating up, as the campaign group “Stick to Science” got senior scientists to write a letter to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen urging her to unblock the funds for both countries. They fear time is now running out. Britain is already preparing an alternative scheme but Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust and one of the authors of the letter, argues that failing to associate with the EU’s scheme will have an impact on Swiss and British national research systems. According to him, lack of participation to the scheme will still be felt in 10 years’ time, saying: “The next one or two months are going to be critical”. Whether he’s right or wrong, it appears an important policy choice is currently being made.

Meanwhile, at the sixth anniversary of the Brexit referendum, student Simon Zemp analyses in his master’s thesis how Swiss newspapers have been referring to Brexit, concluding how it has served as both a ‘deterrent’ and a ‘role model’ in Swiss public debate. In other words: the idea that the Swiss would somehow be scared by the Brexit experience, which was one reason for the EU to be often rigid towards the UK, isn’t based on much.

That’s relevant when it comes to the ongoing tensions between Britain and the EU over the Northern Irish protocol. Here, the EU is continuing to resist flexibility over border checks inside of the UK, between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, despite the fact that this is a very sensitive topic in Northern Ireland, where the nervous political situation now prevents a new government from being formed.

At the core, the EU claims that such checks are needed on goods flowing from for example the port of Liverpool to Belfast, because goods cannot be checked when moving from Belfast to Dublin, which is based in the EU, due to the Northern Irish peace process, as this would mean a “hard border on the island of Ireland”.

So far, that makes sense. It also makes sense for the EU to be wary of goods flowing into its territory unchecked. What doesn’t make sense, however, is that the EU is dismissing the solutions proposed by the UK out of the hand.

Yes, it is surely questionable that so soon after the Brexit deal has been agreed, the EU is already demanding changes to it – even threatening not to apply the deal, even if Parliament may block this – but then the details of the border checks inside UK territory were never agreed. Surely, the UK’s proposed solution to design a system that would identify whether a good is destined to stay in Northern Ireland or not – and on that basis check the good or not – is worth considering?

The EU has come up with a compromise proposal, but in reality this came with an extra demand. The EU basically suggested to reduce the number of checks, on condition that the UK would sign up to a Swiss-style deal on animal and plant standards, which would require the UK to continue to align its regulations with the EU’s. That’s something the UK is very wary of, not only because of sovereignty concerns, but also because it hopes to close a trade deal with the United States. Copy pasting EU agricultural standards would make that very difficult.

A lot of such nuances are however getting lost, and in the international debate, the UK is clearly seen as the unreasonable partner, resulting in for example the United States siding with the EU side on this topic. The interesting thing, however, is how relevant the UK and Swiss relationship with the EU are for each other, and how parallels can be discovered constantly.

Both in the UK and Switzerland, various factions continue to pitch similar options. Renewed interest to join the European Economic Area in Switzerland in Spring was followed by UK Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood also pushing for an EEA arrangement for Britain.

Also when it comes to how much room to scrap EU regulations both countries have, much can be learned from each other. In its deal with the EU, the UK government has much more leeway to scrap EU regulations than Switzerland, but that doesn’t mean it does so in practice. A plan by UK “Brexit opportunities” Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg to introduce a five-year expiry date for about 1,500 pieces of EU regulatory legislation is being opposed by UK business lobbies, who claim that any “blanket” changes would create more complexity and uncertainty for businesses. The resignation of Boris Johnson is yet another new complication, as much will now be determined on whether his successor, to be chosen over the Summer, will be more moderate or not when it comes to dealing with the EU.

As I have always argued, the UK is unlikely to scrap a lot of the costly EU regulations it has introduced. Yes, the UK regulatory rulebook will diverge from the EU’s, but this will only happen over time, as Britain will simply opt not to take over new EU regulations, for example when the EU comes up with an update of its burdensome and arbitrary GDPR data regulation. Also German CDU MEPs now consider GDPR to be a threat to innovation. On the bright side however, the UK is going to scrap the EU internet cookie regulation, which has been annoying countless internet users as they are forced to click on pop-up windows before being able to read website content.

In any case, Switzerland is certainly not going to join the EU. Perhaps an interesting alternative route could be to join the “European Commonwealth” UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson proposed last month, suggesting this would be composed of the UK, Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic States and later also Turkey, as an “alternative to the EU [for] countries united by distrust of Brussels and Germany’s response to Russian aggression.” Or perhaps the Swiss may prefer to never change a winning horse and simply continue as always, “very well, alone.”