On 23 June 2016, nearly 52% of the British electorate chose to exit the EU. Brexit steered the need to redefine relations between the EU’s 27 remaining Member States and the UK. This reboot must also occur in Switzerland since the existing relations with the UK are based on bilateral agreements between Switzerland and the EU. Economic exchanges are important; more than 150 flights are operated daily between Switzerland and the UK, Switzerland is the third largest export market in the world for the UK and is the second largest investor outside the EU in the UK, just after the United States.

Switzerland is concerned by Brexit

In 2015, direct Swiss investments in the UK reached 51 billion francs, and inversely, the UK was investing 31 billion francs in Switzerland. Swiss companies employ approximately 200,000 people in Britain. Furthermore, there are close links in the field of research. Switzerland and the UK are the only countries in Europe whose universities regularly appear in the top 10 world rankings. More than 40,000 British citizens live in Switzerland and over 33’000 Swiss citizens are established in the UK. Due to the close ties between the two countries, Brexit has direct economic implications for Switzerland.

“Waiting for Godot” is not an option for Switzerland. (Wikipedia Commons)

It is a known fact that the ongoing Brexit negotiations are tough. We are 16 months into Brexit and the British government still hasn’t provided a clear negotiation strategy. In London, there are almost as many views on future relations with the EU as there are members of the Cabinet. The EU was able to impose the divorce program: first, the exit from the EU must be negotiated and, more specifically, the sensitive issue of the amount of financial commitments that London must recognize. Only then can the future of the relation be discussed. A two-year period has been allocated for the exit negotiations, after which, the UK’s membership will automatically expire, regardless of where negotiations stand – unless the European Council unanimously decides to extend the negotiation deadline. If there is a “clean Brexit”, an abrupt change in the system could lead to a chaotic situation. There are concerns that airplanes between the UK and the EU will no longer be able to fly, or that trade in pharmaceutical products will end, as EU regulators would no longer be qualified; let alone the uncertainty regarding the status of the 3 million EU citizens residing in the UK and 1.2 million British citizens residing in the EU.

The situation is also sensitive for Switzerland. The flight connections mentioned above are based on the “Open Sky” agreement between Switzerland and the EU. Moreover, since the UK is still a member of the EU, it cannot formally negotiate the future of its relations with Switzerland at present. Only informal discussions can be conducted. The objective of the Swiss negotiations must focus on maintaining the relations between Switzerland and the UK the same, even after the UK’s exit from the EU.

No congruent interests

Despite the strong existing relations between Switzerland and the UK, economic exchanges between our country and the other 27 EU Member States are much more important. Nevertheless, ignoring this reality, voices in Switzerland have outspokenly linked Switzerland’s relations with the EU, to the results of negotiations on Brexit, based on the notion that Switzerland and the UK have similar interests. On this point, we tend to forget that the interests of the UK and Switzerland are not similar – or does Switzerland need a fishing agreement with the EU? If we listened to these voices, then Switzerland would be at the mercy of British interests, which would be unworthy of a sovereign state and risky given the competition between London and Zurich or Geneva, as a financial center.

Such a negotiation strategy, marked by paralysis, inevitably recalls Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot”: Godot is unknown, nothing specific is known about him either, but more can be interpreted about his character as the wait for him continues. Bottom line, we are kidding ourselves instead of shaping our future with our own actions and beliefs.

This article appeared October 24, 2017 in the printed edition of the "Luzerner Zeitung" and the "St. Galler Tagblatt”.