Switzerland signs off on post-Brexit trade agreement with UK

Suspicions that Switzerland and the UK have been quietly working behind the scenes to draw up a post-Brexit economics and trade agreement have now been confirmed.

Switzerland signs off on post-Brexit trade agreement with UK
The Federal Palace of Switzerland in Bern. Photo: AFP

On Friday, the Swiss government announced it had signed off on the text of the new agreement it said should form the basis of business and trade relations between the two countries after the UK quits the European Union.

“This agreement guarantees, as far as possible, the continuation of the economic and commercial rights and obligations arising from the agreements between Switzerland and the EU,” the Swiss Federal Council said in a statement.

Trade between Switzerland and the UK was worth 17.5 billion Swiss francs (€15.5 billion) last year. The UK was Switzerland’s sixth biggest export market in 2017 and its sixth largest direct investor in 2016.

Text still under wraps

The text of the new agreement remains under wraps for now because the UK is officially barred from negotiating with third countries until it leaves the EU.

But behind the scenes, there have been extensive talks between Bern and London and the arrival of the agreement won’t surprise observers in the Swiss and British business communities.

Those talks come in the context of a determined push to ensure there is as little disruption as possible in bilateral relations because of Brexit.

At present, these relations are chiefly based on a package of agreements between Switzerland and the EU. But after Brexit, those agreement will cease to apply and will need to be replaced.

Free movement of persons

Alongside the trade agreement announced on Friday, Switzerland has also been working with the UK towards a new free movement of persons agreement.

According to the Swiss government, this should protect the rights of British residents in Switzerland and Swiss citizens living in the UK after the 1999 bilateral agreement on the free movement of persons (AFMP) between the EU and Switzerland ceases to apply post-Brexit.

Timing of the new agreement

Meanwhile, the timing of the implementation of the new post-Brexit trade agreement depends on whether the transition period agreed to between the UK and EU comes into force. If that is the case, the treaty would be the basis for trade relations after the transition phase ends on December 31st 2020.

But the Swiss government has also made plans for a so-called “no-deal scenario”. It says that if there is no transition period, the new agreement “makes it possible to replicate in substance the vast majority of trade agreements that currently regulate relations between Switzerland and the UK”.

However, the Swiss government has elsewhere sounded a note of caution by saying that the “fall-back” solution triggered by a “no-deal” situation could not “guarantee the continuation of the current level of treaty relations, especially in the harmonised areas”.

The Swiss business federation economiesuisse reacted positively to news of the agreement. Both countries had done their homework and had “sorted out what could be sorted out at this stage,” the federation’s head of foreign trade, Jan Atteslander, told Swiss daily Tages Anzeiger.

News of the trade agreement between the UK and Switzerland, which will need to be approved by the parliaments of both countries, comes just a week after the Swiss government published the text of a draft deal designed to govern bilateral relations between Switzerland and the EU in the years to come.

That draft deal is the result of years of negotiations. The Swiss government hopes the parliament will approve the deal after a consultation process, but there is opposition from both left-wing and right-wing parties in the parliament.

Read also: What you need to know about the new draft Swiss–EU deal


Brexit: Brits in EU feel European and don’t want to return home

The majority of Britons who live in the EU, Norway, Iceland or Switzerland and are protected under the Brexit agreement feel European and intend to remain in Europe permanently, but many have concerns about travel problems, a new survey reveals.

Brexit: Brits in EU feel European and don't want to return home

The research also shows that problems exist and “travel is where most issues relating to the new status currently occur”. For instance, border officials are still stamping passports of UK citizens with residence rights under the EU UK withdrawal agreement, even though they shouldn’t.

“There is constant confusion around passport stamping. I was ‘stamped in’ to France on a short trip… but could not find anyway to be ‘stamped out’ again. I think I can only spend 90 days in other EU countries, but have no idea how anyone can check or enforce that – until someone decides to try. It’s a mess,” was one of the answers left in an open question.

“Every time I go through a Schengen border control, I need to provide both my passport and Aufenthaltstitel card [resident permit in Germany] and watch to check that they don’t stamp my passport. As I am currently travelling a lot that’s been 20-odd times this year…” another respondent said.

The survey was carried out by Professor Tanja Bueltmann, historian of migration and diaspora at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, between October and November 2022. About 1,139 UK citizens replied.

Of these, 80 per cent found acquiring their new status easy or very easy, 60.7 per cent feel their rights are secure, while 39.3 per cent have concerns about their status going forward.

Staying permanently

More than three quarters (76.6 per cent) of respondents said they plan to live permanently in the EU or the other countries of the European Economic Area and Switzerland. In fact, 65.7 per cent said that Brexit has increased the likelihood of this choice.

For some, the decision is linked to the difficulty to bring non-British family members to the UK under new, stricter immigration rules.

“My German wife and I decided we no longer wanted to live in UK post Brexit referendum. In particular, we were affected by the impact of immigration law […] We cannot now return to UK on retirement as I cannot sponsor her on my pension. We knew it was a one-way journey. Fortunately, I could revive an application for German citizenship,” was a testimony.

“My husband is a US citizen and getting him a visa for the UK was near impossible due to my low income as a freelance journalist. We realized under EU law, moving to an EU country was easier. We settled on Austria as we had both lived there before… we could speak some German, and we like the mountains,” said another respondent.

Professor Bueltmann noted that the loss of free movement rights in the EU could be a factor too in the decision of many to stay where they are.

Citizenship and representation

Among those who decided to stay, 38.2 per cent are either applying or planning to apply for a citizenship and 28.6 per cent are thinking about it.

A key finding of the research, Bueltmann said, is that the vast majority of British citizens do not feel politically represented. Some 60 per cent of respondents said they feel unrepresented and another 30 per cent not well represented.

Another issue is that less than half (47.5 per cent) trust the government of their country of residence, while a larger proportion (62 per cent) trust the European Union. Almost all (95.6 per cent) said they do not trust the UK government.

Feeling European

The survey highlights the Brexit impacts on people’s identity too. 82.6 per cent of respondents said they see themselves as European, a higher proportion than those identifying as British (68.9 per cent).

“Brexit has really left me unsure of what my identity is. I don’t feel British, and I certainly don’t identify with the mindset of a lot of British people who live there. Yet, I am not Danish either. So, I don’t really know anymore!” said one of the participants in the survey.

Professor Bueltmann said the survey “demonstrates that Brexit impacts continue to evolve: this didn’t just stop because the transition period was over or a deadline for an application had been reached. Consequently, Brexit continues to shape the lives and experiences of British citizens in the EU/EEA and Switzerland in substantial, sometimes life-altering, ways.”

Considering the results of the study, Professor Bueltmann recommends policy makers in the EU and the UK to address the issue of lack of representation, for instance creating a joint UK-EU citizens’ stakeholder forum.

The report also recommends the UK government to rebuild trust with British citizens in the EU introducing voting rights for life and changing immigration rules to allow British-European families to return more easily. 

This article was prepared in cooperation with Europe Street News.