Switzerland: London watches EU talks on migration closely

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Jean-Claude Juncker, and Swiss President Johann Schnieder-Ammann, in Zurich. [European Commission]

Switzerland’s future agreement on free movement with the EU, depending on the form it takes, could offer the United Kingdom a precedent to lean on in its own Brexit negotiations, writes Strafor.

Stratfor is a Texas-based global intelligence company.

Switzerland and the European Union are trying to compromise on issues of access: The European Union is pushing to maintain the free movement of workers into Switzerland, which many Swiss citizens oppose, and Switzerland wants unencumbered access to the bloc’s internal market. It’s a negotiation that the United Kingdom is tracking closely.

On 19 September, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker met with Swiss President Johann Schneider-Ammann in Zurich to reconcile Switzerland’s 2014 referendum with its agreement with the Continental bloc. The Swiss vote would introduce a quota for the number of EU workers allowed into the country, a measure Brussels argues would violate Bern’s commitment to accept EU migrants in exchange for access to Europe’s single market.

In an attempt to honour its citizens’ wishes and its deal with the European Union, the Swiss government has proposed a compromise. Rather than establishing a quota, Bern would simply grant Swiss nationals preference over EU citizens in hiring. After the meeting, Juncker announced that the offer was one the EU “could live with” and promised to return to Switzerland for additional talks in October. The Swiss parliament will debate the idea on 21 September.

The United Kingdom, which will soon have to discuss similar issues with the European Union, has been carefully following the negotiations to see how they pan out. However, Juncker has warned that whatever deal Brussels reaches with Switzerland will apply exclusively to the Alpine nation. His statement was clearly aimed at the United Kingdom, which also hopes to limit EU workers’ access to its labour market while preserving its connection to the bloc’s internal market. Switzerland’s accord, depending on the form it takes, could offer the United Kingdom a precedent to lean on in its own negotiations.

That said, there is no guarantee that London would want to emulate Bern’s example. A system that gives priority to nationals is a far weaker barrier to EU workers than a quota is. Moreover, in many countries with similar systems in place, companies often find ways to circumvent their restrictions. The promise of reducing migration to the United Kingdom was one of the British “leave” camp’s main pledges, and anti-immigration hard-liners in London may refuse to back the solution Switzerland is offering.

The status of EU workers is cause for concern outside the United Kingdom, too. On 17 September, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico warned that Central and Eastern European countries could veto any Brexit deal that fails to protect the rights of EU migrants living in the United Kingdom. Over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of workers from Central and Eastern Europe (most notably, Poland) have travelled to the United Kingdom to find jobs. Though the British government is unlikely to expel workers who already live in the country, London will certainly be searching for ways to keep new migrants from arriving.

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