Switzerland offers UK Brexit solution to prevent EU 'explosion' over free movement

Switzerland is not a member of the European Economic Area but has more than 100 of its own bilateral trade agreements with the EU

Switzerland is a member of the European Free Trade Association but not the EU
Switzerland is a member of the European Free Trade Association but not the EU

Britain could already be taking tips from Switzerland about the best way to navigate life outside the European Union after Brexit.

Switzerland is not a member of the EU, but is the bloc’s third largest trading partner after the USA and China and currently has a free movement agreement that means EU citizens can work and live there.

Swiss trade diplomats have visited Whitehall for preliminary meetings so the two countries can begin to share notes on matters of trade and migration, according to the BBC.

The Independent has contacted the Foreign Office to confirm when these talks might have taken place.

The UK, which has eight times the population of Switzerland – but around half its GDP per capita – appears to be seeking advice from the landlocked country as it prepares to negotiate its new position in relation to Brussels.

Speaking to the broadcaster, former Swiss president Micheline Calmy-Rey said Britain and Switzerland should work together to prevent the EU “exploding” over disagreements regarding free movement of people.

Immigration has been a key issue in the Brexit debate, with polls naming “the number of immigrants coming into Britain” as the most important issue relating to the referendum one week before 23 June,when 17 million people voted to leave the EU.

Micheline Calmy-Rey was president of the Swiss confederation in 2007 and 2011

But on Monday Theresa May said there would be no radical changes to immigration into the UK and ruled out an Australian-style points system.

In its own legally binding referendum in 2014, Switzerland voted narrowly in favour of quotas to limit the number of migrants from the EU, with a deadline of February 2017 for its implementation.

For the last two years, the country has been in talks over its agreement with Brussels, but last month was told it would lose access to the single market if it went ahead with its plans to restrict free movement, according to the Guardian.

Switzerland, unlike Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, is not a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) but instead has more than 100 of its own bilateral trade agreements with the EU.

These are managed by a complex structure of more than 15 joint committees – a set-up Britain may want to study in detail as it looks to negotiate its own trade deals with the bloc.

Ms Calmy-Rey told the BBC the both Switzerland and Britain needed to “find a solution in order to respond to our population to limit migration”.

“Switzerland and Britain have in common the same question - that means the question of freedom of movement and [the need] to find a solution in order to respond to our population to limit migration,” she said.

The former president questioned to what extent the two countries would have to concede their access to trade in order to impose limits on free movement.

She suggested Brussels may have to compromise to avoid a split between two separate “visions” of free movement currently at war within the union.

“You have one vision which wants more integration, more solidarity with migrants, more freedom of movement and more integration of economic policies, of fiscal policies,” she said. “And you have other countries that do not want all of that.

“If the European Union doesn't want to take the risk of exploding we have to take into account these two visions and perhaps find a third way.”

Last month, a Swiss government report highlighted the country’s heavy reliance on immigration in its work force, underlining the importance of its participation in free movement agreements with the EU.

And with more than two million EU workers currently in the UK, this may well be something Britain will also have to take into consideration.

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