Expert comment: Professor Clive Church on lessons for Brexit

Commenting on the increasingly fractious relationship between the UK and the EU over Brexit, Politics Professor Clive Church, says the ‘indiscreet and incendiary British political style’ could learn from that of Switzerland.

‘Although Prime Minister Theresa May continues to say that, post Brexit, she wants the UK to have “a deep and special partnership” with a successful European Union but not something copied from a third party, recent events suggest that there are still lessons to be learned from the Swiss experience.

‘The Swiss seem to have resolved the blockage on further deals which started in 2009. A recent visit to Brussels by President Doris Leuthard has seen an agreement to reopen negotiations on other sectoral arrangements such as electricity which have been pending for years.

‘The Swiss also seem ready to talk about an institutional framework deal which the EU has long wanted because the present bilaterals are hard to manage, are increasingly out of date and present many legal uncertainties. This means accepting changes to the acquis and some role for the ECJ, which means that internal opposition is certain.

‘However, the EU may now be willing to be flexible since it knows that Switzerland wants involvement with the Single Market, which the UK has ruled out. So, whatever is decided for the Swiss, will not prove a hostage to fortune in the harder negotiations over Brexit.

‘This shows the kind of line the EU is likely to take even with friendly third parties. It shows that agreements cannot be a one-off matter, they will have to be evolutionary. Equally mediation arrangements will be needed. And the Swiss situation suggests that earlier optimistic talk – in both countries – of the two sceptical states forming a new alliance is likely to be disappointed. Indeed there could now be competition between the two outsider financial centres.

‘Swiss success is something of a triumph for their discreet and patient diplomacy. For although Switzerland has one of the biggest, best organized and most virulent anti-European parties in Europe, the continuing consensual elements of Swiss politics have prevented this from gaining control of European policy. As a result, official dealings have remained polite and non-confrontational. Both sides seem to have accepted that they are in a mutually rewarding partnership.

‘All this is in great contrast to the UK situation where hostility and bad temper rule. For, despite Mrs May’s emollient talk, the predominance of Europhobic rhetoric in the UK points in a completely different direction. The continuing years of aggressive outpourings from the tabloid press have been resented by the 27, and this makes talk of a special relationship unconvincing.

‘There are two lessons that British policy makers might like to learn. One is that the fact that the Swiss seem to be moving to a resumption of negotiations with the EU suggests that the latter sees Switzerland in a different light from the UK, even though many see the two as allies. The other is that the way Switzerland has gone about seeking a new deal, which is very different from the indiscreet and incendiary British political style now endorsed by Mrs May, makes things easier for the Swiss.

‘Having rejected the EU because it is constraining and, in the view of many anti-Europeans, politically ill-founded, the UK should not expect it to act as a truly welcoming friend. It will have to learn that Brexit really is Brexit. Not surprisingly the leaking of the all too believable differences at the infamous Downing Street dinner caused a new torrent of hostility in London, to which Mrs May fell victim. Hence her bizarre claims that the EU was interfering in our election.

‘A Swiss statesman in the same situation would have been more circumspect and, probably, rather more successful. The British have yet to come to terms with the complexities and sensitivities of negotiating things more demanding and ambitious than ERASMUS+ and a Swiss-EU framework agreement. So, a little more restrained Swiss style approach would be in order. But will British political culture allow this?’

Professor Clive Church, is Emeritus Professor of European Studies, in the School of Politics and International Relations, with an interest in constitutional development in the UK and the EU. His continuing academic interests are on Swiss history and politics

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