Rishi Sunak has tried to quash claims that his government intends to forge closer economic ties with the EU by pursuing a Swiss-style trading deal.
The “Swiss model” allows Switzerland, which is outside the EU, to enjoy access to the European single market through a series of bilateral agreements made possible by matching EU rules and regulations.
The Sunday Times reported that Chancellor Jeremy Hunt last week “signalled that Rishi Sunak’s administration intends to break from the approach adopted by Boris Johnson and remove the vast majority of trade barriers with the bloc”.
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“In private,” the paper said, “senior government sources have suggested that pursuing frictionless trade requires moving towards a Swiss-style relationship over the next decade.” This would not extend to a return to freedom of movement, they insist.
But, after a furious backlash from some Tory MPs, Sunak said this morning he was “unequivocal” that the UK under his leadership “will not pursue any relationship with Europe that relies on alignment with EU laws”.
What did the newspapers say?
The trade-off between greater access and greater alignment goes to the heart of what kind of relationship the UK wants with its biggest trading partner. It also represents a political puzzle that has proved too difficult for four prime ministers since the EU referendum in 2016.
While the Swiss model grants access to the EU single market, it “also involves more liberal EU migration, and payments to the EU budget, with the bloc in recent years also pushing for the European Court of Justice to have greater oversight in the relationship”, said The Sunday Times.
“The Swiss have frequently debated restricting free movement from the bloc, but in the most recent referendum opted to keep it,” said the paper, adding: “These are all red lines for members of the rebellious European Research Group.”
Any such shift, only a few years after Johnson secured a deal with the EU after years of back-and-forth negotiations, “would likely inflame backbench Tory Brexiteers”, agreed LBC.
The Telegraph reported on “a backlash at the weekend from leading Brexiteer MPs who warned it would be a betrayal of the freedoms won in the 2016 referendum”.
One ERG Brexiteer told the i news site that “free and unregulated trade with the EU was always desirable but the problem is it would come at far too high a price.
“It would be a massive surrender of our sovereignty which would undermine the whole point of Brexit and make the UK a vassal of the EU with no say in the rules we were forced to adopt,” the MP added.
Critics of the plan have labelled it “Chequers 2.0” in reference to Theresa May’s ill-fated Chequers deal, which sought to effectively keep the whole of the UK in the EU customs union. At the time this was seen as the only way to avoid a land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic and a sea border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK but was repeatedly rejected by Parliament in 2019, eventually leading to May's resignation and the hard Brexit deal negotiated by her successor, Johnson.
Health Secretary Steve Barclay, who was the last head of the now disbanded Brexit department, told Sky News he did not “recognise” reports the government wanted to put the UK on a path towards a Swiss-style deal. And former work and pensions secretary Chloe Smith, who campaigned for Remain, insisted that seeking a closer arrangement would not be a “wise path” for the government “at this time”.
Nigel Farage, the former Ukip and Brexit Party leader, put it more bluntly, tweeting: “This level of betrayal will never be forgiven.”
Hinting at a return to frontline politics if such a deal were pursued, he told The Sun he was “not ruling anything out”.
In an address to business leaders in Birmingham on Monday morning, Sunak denied plans to align with EU laws. “I voted for Brexit. I believe in Brexit and I know that Brexit can deliver, and is already delivering, enormous benefits and opportunities for the country,” he told the CBI.
Sunak is nevertheless facing a “row on two fronts over Brexit”, reported The Guardian. On one hand he risks alienating and inciting a large and vocal section of his party by pursuing closer ties with the EU, while on the other businesses are calling for more open immigration rules. This comes amid a “renewed focus on the effects of Brexit given the UK is the only G7 country still lagging behind pre-pandemic growth levels”, said the paper.
It suggested that the briefing over the weekend “may have been designed to test how far the ERG would resist a closer relationship with the EU in the challenging economic environment the UK has found itself in”.
Despite the denial, “he may not be forgiven”, said Rachel Wearmouth, The New Statesman’s deputy political editor, before Monday’s speech.
“Could the Prime Minister be brave, face down the rebels and admit that a closer relationship with the EU is highly desirable – maybe even urgently needed?” she asked, arguing that “many Tory backbenchers who have Lib Dems snapping at their heels would surely be relieved to have something to say on the doorstep come the next election”.
It appears the Tories are not the only party who would prefer not to reopen the Brexit quagmire after shadow work and pensions secretary Jonathan Ashworth told Sky News that Labour would not seek to adopt Swiss-style arrangements nor rejoin the EU single market.
But, in a sign a future Labour government may be more willing to forge closer ties with the EU, Ashworth said that “we do want to negotiate a bespoke deal for the United Kingdom, so that our businesses can export, so that we can get those agreements on agriculture, so we can work together on security issues”.
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