WEEKLY COMMENT 22-09-2016
By Barry Edwards
On the 9th of February 2014, the Swiss government held a referendum on mass immigration into the country which was supported by 50.33% of those who actually voted; the turnout was 56.57% of the electorate. Currently, the EU and Switzerland have around 100 bilateral agreements covering a wide range of activities but they do not allow passporting of financial services. However, the banks have subsidiary companies in London which does allow them access to the rest of the EU.
The result of the referendum contravened the bilateral agreements with the EU since free movement of people is part of the contract. The Swiss vote imposed restrictions on immigration and the EU Commission decided to allow 3 years for a renegotiation to be conducted which expires on the 9th of February 2017. The EU and the Swiss are actively trying to find a solution to this impasse since time is running out before the bilateral agreements are effectively cancelled and tariffs would be charged on trade and all other arrangements would be suspended.
Switzerland is part of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) which is the body that negotiates all agreements with the EU and the EU Commission President, Jean Claude Juncker, has stated that any agreement that is reached between the parties will not form the basis of any deal with the UK Brexit negotiations. Since Switzerland is surrounded by the three largest economies in the EU and has been trading with these countries for centuries, it would be very inconvenient if some agreement was not reached for all concerned. Therefore, it is likely that an agreement will be reached by February next year.
You have probably guessed where this is going by now and the relevance to the Brexit talks. You would have thought this matter would have been discussed during the UK referendum debate and even the possibility of delaying the vote until the Swiss agreement had been decided. It would have created a precedent for the terms the UK extracted from the EU prior to the referendum and may well have swayed the result decisively. For those of you who feel that it is a good thing we are going to leave the EU anyway this will not make any difference but it does bring into question the tactics of the remain campaign.
Despite the different views held by the nation about the EU and the warnings from the EU President, the Swiss negotiations are bound to have some influence on the Brexit talks since immigration is considered the major reason that the British nation voted to leave the EU. The possibility that there may be a framework that resolves the question of immigration throughout the EU is about to be negotiated, it is clear why there is a delay in the decision to activate article 50 of the EU treaty. There is a deafening silence about this matter in political circles and the media have not picked up on this either.
There is a lot of debate about the future of the EU which the Bratislava meeting did not really address and it is definitely a subject that will dominate the 27 members for some time. Immigration is a thorn in the side for the bureaucrats in Brussels and the increasing reaction to the new influx from the Middle East is causing many Europeans to align with the right-wing parties who promote the imposition of restrictions into and throughout the EU. This is not a subject that is going away and a resolution has to be found for the EU to endure continuous harmonious existence.
It is clear that if the Swiss talks do actually allow some restrictions to be imposed it will have a big impact on the Brexit negotiations. It will also help to reduce tensions in other countries in the EU and allow the surge of anti EU political propaganda to subside since it is the most sensitive subject within those parties. Many people agree that the EU has to evolve and become responsible for the issues that affect the whole continent and allow each country to manage its own affairs when it is purely a national matter. Immigration is a continental and also a country specific problem and in the case of Switzerland foreigners living in the country represent nearly 25% of the population which is obviously a percentage that is much larger than many other countries would accept.
There are also many EU citizens from surrounding countries that cross the border commuting to work on a daily basis which makes it important to those areas in those countries. There are 420,000 Swiss nationals living in the EU which is also relevant to the discussions taking place now. The Swiss clearly have a point about the number of foreigners living in their country and it must have some influence on the agreement that is reached with the EU. This may be why the EU President has stated that the circumstances here are not the same for the UK.
All the same, the outcome of these talks will certainly have some relevance to the whole debate about immigration and we may well see a result that could be the beginning of a resolution to this important problem.
That’s all for this week, more observations next week.