Downing Street has “categorically” denied seeking a Swiss-style relationship with the EU after Eurosceptics claimed such a deal would undermine British sovereignty and the “freedoms” of Brexit.
But senior government officials have privately said they want closer UK-EU trade ties in the longer term, drawing comparisons to Switzerland’s relatively smooth trade with the bloc.
Jeremy Hunt, Chancellor, said last week he wants to remove the “vast majority” of trade barriers over time, but has not said how this could be ensured.
The EU has repeatedly said it will not allow Britain to “pick out” elements of its old membership, even if relations between the two sides improve under Rishi Sunak’s tenure.
Downing Street said it was unwilling to make the kind of concessions the Swiss have made to secure better access to the single market, including paying EU budget contributions and aligning with EU laws.
Switzerland pays money into the EU budget and aligns closely with the bloc’s laws to secure access to the single market – a model opposed by Downing Street.
Referring to a Sunday Times newspaper report in which senior government officials planned to put Britain on the path to a Swiss-style relationship with the EU, Downing Street said this was “categorically wrong”.
However, the FT has spoken to officials, who say the Swiss settlement was made over closer ties at senior levels of government, but that ministers are taking a different tack and will continue to deviate from EU rules in areas such as financial services.
Lord David Frost, former Brexit secretary, said if the reports were correct he hoped “the government would quickly consider these plans”. Frost negotiated the hard Brexit that kept Britain out of the single market.
Simon Clarke, a Tory MP and former Cabinet Secretary, said: “I very much hope and believe that this will not be considered. In 2019, we clarified the question of the final exit from the EU.”
Nigel Farage, the former leader of the UKIP and Brexit party, said: “That level of treachery will never be forgiven.”
Downing Street said: “Brexit means we never again have to accept a relationship with Europe that would involve a return to free movement, making unnecessary payments to the EU, or jeopardizing the full benefits of trade deals that we can now strike globally.”
Steve Barclay, another former Brexit secretary, told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge: “We have a Prime Minister who himself has supported Brexit.” worked hard to maximize our control over our laws, our borders and our money.”
While Hunt wants to remove trade barriers and Sunak wants to end the standoff with Brussels over Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trade regime, the detail is highly problematic.
The EU has made it clear that Britain cannot gain access to the single market unless it applies EU rules and accepts the case law of the European Court of Justice.
Switzerland is a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and has very close ties with the EU, including access to the internal market created by around 120 bilateral agreements on trade, services and free movement.
Attempts to streamline this network of deals into a single overarching “framework deal,” in which Brussels urged the Swiss to conform more closely to EU law and accept the bloc’s court as the deal’s final arbiter, failed in May last year.
During the Brexit negotiations, the European Commission insisted that the UK should not look at the Swiss deal as a paradigm for future relations, arguing that the size and proximity of the UK economy made such a relationship highly problematic.
Labor said it would not adopt the Swiss model if it won the next election but backed a tailor-made deal with Britain, including deals on agriculture and mutual recognition of professional qualifications.