Rishi Sunak’s government has been forced to deny reports that it is planning to overhaul UK-EU relations by agreeing to a trade partnership based on Switzerland’s agreement with the bloc.
The Sunday Times reported that senior ministers have been working on a new proposal for EU relations that would scrap 80% of the checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and open up access to the single market. The Times also reported that this could involve annual payments by the UK to the EU budget but not the return of freedom of movement.
The reports, which have been denied as “categorically untrue” by the Prime Minister’s office, have still prompted an angry reaction from Brexiteers.
“I don’t recognise this story at all,” said Steve Barclay, a former Brexit Secretary who finalised the UK’s Withdrawal Agreement with the EU. “I want to maximise the opportunities that Brexit offers,” he added.
Trade minister Maria Caulfield, meanwhile, described the reports as “fake news”.
A Swiss-style deal would be based on the principle of regulatory alignment – whereby the UK would commit to sticking to swathes of EU single market legislation. A similar model to this was initially proposed by former Prime Minister Theresa May in July 2018 but prompted the resignations of several ministers, including Boris Johnson, and was later rejected by the EU on the grounds that it amounted to ‘cherry picking’.
Instead, the Johnson government’s Trade and Cooperation Agreement provides tariff and quota-free trade between the UK and EU but introduces customs checks.
However, the EU’s Brexit negotiator, European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, offered a Swiss-style trading agreement last June but David Frost, the Brexit minister in the Johnson administration, rejected it.
The UK is likely at the start of a prolonged recession that the Office of Budgetary Responsibility expects to shrink the economy by 1.4% in 2023. One theory is that ministers wanted to test the water within the Conservative party to see whether the most eurosceptic wing would accept closer trade relations with the EU.
Last week, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt said that the UK would seek to improve trading ties with the EU without rejoining the single market.
(Benjamin Fox | EURACTIV.com)