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Chen Chenchen: Brexit puts Switzerland in a tight spot

2016-12-26

By Chen Chenchen    Source: Global Times    Published: 2016-12-25


An 11-second BBC video clip is going viral, in which British Prime Minister Theresa May was left alone awkwardly at the EU Summit in Brussels on December 15 while leaders around her hugged and kissed each other. British media bemoaned in the headlines that Brexit wasn`t even on the agenda.


Brexit, in fact, was on the agenda - just not the official one. May was barred from attending the working dinner, where the 27 other EU leaders held a 20-minute informal discussion on Brexit. All these symbolize the EU`s attitude toward Britain following its decision to walk out in June.


This cold shoulder could also be felt in Switzerland, which sits at Europe`s center geographically but has been resisting full integration into the EU. Amid the various conversations I recently had with the local Swiss while I was traveling in the country, one frequent complaint was that with the Brexit vote, Britain now puts Switzerland in a very dangerous situation.


"Britain is in exactly same situation as Switzerland - we both want free trade but reject free movement of migrants," one Swiss scholar told me, "they [the British] think they are smart and powerful. For Swiss, now, we just lean back and see how they negotiate with the EU."


The Swiss anxiety occurs at a time when euroskeptical forces are sweeping Europe and threatening European integration. In February 2014, Switzerland had a referendum that decided to control the inflow of immigrants. Since then, Switzerland`s negotiations with the EU on its single market access have been slow. Now with Brexit, Britain seems to stifle Switzerland`s hope of any successful negation with Brussels. Brexit has challenged the EU`s bottom line, and Brussels will make sure that Britain has a hard time. Under such circumstances, the EU is not prepared to concede to Switzerland before it has an agreement with Britain, since any of those concessions may weaken Brussels` position in its negotiations with the British.


The EU is apparently facing a dilemma. In Brussels, there is fear of a domino effect from the anti-EU mood. Brussels will undoubtedly exert pressure on countries like Britain and Switzerland. Nonetheless, such pressure may not be effective, since the ongoing debt crisis and refugee crisis are only strengthening anti-EU parties in European countries. At the moment, relationship with the EU is the topic of fierce debates in countries such as Italy, Austria, Poland, the Netherland and Spain. Euroskeptical voices are gaining stronger momentum.


Behind this is a fundamental crisis facing European integration - pure economic calculation of costs and benefits of staying close to the EU is dominating national decision-making and public thinking. It is crystal clear that European leaders are prioritizing national self-interests on top of unified European interests. As these two types of interests are seen as going against each other at times, countries are struggling to find a balance between independence and integration with the rest of Europe, which is too tricky a task.


In the past two decades, Switzerland has been seen as the most capable among European countries to strike such a balance and the Swiss approach is known as "engagement without marriage" with the EU. However, such a pragmatic approach of enjoying economic benefit without undertaking any political obligation is now in trouble. Before the Brexit vote, there were discussions in Britain that they may learn from Switzerland`s approach. Now, this doesn`t seem optimistic at all.


The perception in European countries of trying to leave unscathed or stay away from the current European crisis is a real danger to European integration. Everyone is blaming everyone else. Decisions are made at the national level, rather than in Brussels. The suggestion of multi-speed European integration due to diversified situations in different European countries is mentioned more often, but that sounds more like an excuse, rather than a solution.


Europe is entering a new stage in which unification principles are challenged and sub-regional cooperation strengthened. European countries, both core and marginal, eurozone and non-eurozone, as well as the northern and southern regions, are set to restructure their relationships through negotiations and competition. A new complicated process of repositioning their interests, preferences and identities has already begun.


The author is a research fellow with Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.

Key Words: Switzerland   British   EU   Chen Chenchen  

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