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Foreign Affairs From The Anthology: Brexit and Beyond
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The Swiss Model

Why It Won't Work for the United Kingdom

After the Brexit referendum, it became clear that the people had spoken. But in the days that followed, it also became clear that no one knew what had been said. And nowhere is this more apparent than with the leaders of the “Out” campaign who seem to have no real plan on how to actually leave the bloc and organize the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union thereafter. Boris Johnson’s surprise exit from the race to replace Prime Minister David Cameron, who announced his resignation following the vote, on top of the Labour Party establishment coup against its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, adds to this feeling of insecurity. Some observers have raised the option of the Swiss model. And there are certainly parallels worth considering, even if land-locked Switzerland has never attempted to join the EU and the island kingdom may soon be put out to sea.

Nearly a quarter century ago, in December, 1992, Switzerland held its own “In–Out” referendum. It was on whether to join the European Economic Area (EEA), which the Swiss government branded as a “training camp” for full membership into the European community and which, it argued, would come without any option for an exit. A small majority of the voters, prioritizing the protection of national sovereignty and fearing that the country would lose its cherished reputation for political neutrality if absorbed by the European Union, ticked “Out.” For this group of voters, the expected economic benefits from joining and the possible geopolitical fallout from remaining out of the economic bloc, were less important.

In the last two decades, Switzerland has twisted itself in circles to strike different economic and political deals with the EU without actually becoming a member. It has even joined, among other treaties, the controversial Dublin Regulation requiring European countries to take in asylum-seekers wherever they first land. Switzerland also negotiated a deal with the EU that made it a member of the Schengen area, which effectively abolished Swiss sovereignty popular vote demanding the restriction of immigration, but negotiations with EU leaders turned out to be next to impossible because restricting immigration would also lead to Brussels’ withdrawal from key bilateral agreements. After the Brexit decision, it is very unlikely that Switzerland will reach an agreement over this issue, at least within the three-year period set by the Swiss referendum.

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