A pro-EU protester in London's Trafalgar Square. Photo: AFP
Swiss representatives previously held talks with their British counterparts to discuss the possibility of the UK joining the European Free Trade Association (Efta) after Brexit, Swiss media reported on Thursday.
The report came as membership of the UK in Efta was being discussed among countries already in the trade association.
The talks about Efta between Britain and Switzerland happened when Theresa May was prime minister.
“The [Swiss] Efta delegation made a number of visits to London where Efta was explained and brought it into play as a Brexit possibility,” the president of the Swiss Efta delegation and MP with the Liberals (FDP), Hans-Peter Portmann, told Swiss daily Tages Anzeiger.
Portmann said the May government and its parliamentary contacts were interested but very guarded.
“The Brits were convinced they could get more out of going alone,” he added.
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The UK government has previously stated it does not intend to join Efta.
However, UK membership of Efta, which comprises Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Iceland, and, by extension, of the European Economic Area (EEA) – a commercial free trade treaty between the EU and all of the Efta states except Switzerland – is now being talked about again – at least within Efta itself.
The argument runs that this option would continue to give the UK privileged access to EU internal market it currently enjoys. At present, the UK is a member of the EEA, but it would lose this status, along with membership of the EU, with Brexit.
The UK was a founding member of Efta but left the group when it joined the EU.
Norway cool on the idea but Swiss more positive
Norway has expressed concerns about the presence of a large country like the UK in Efta’s ranks but former Icelandic prime minister Davis Gunnlaugson used a recent article in British magazine Spectator to talk up the benefits of “temporary” membership of the EEA (a so-called soft Brexit bridge) as a way for London to escape the Brexit labyrinth.
Meanwhile, there are positive noises coming from Switzerland – which, like the UK, is currently in the midst of protracted talks concerning its future relations with Brussels – about the UK joining Efta.
The president of the foreign affairs committee for the Swiss lower house of parliament, Elisabeth Schneider-Schneiter, told Tages Anzeiger she thought it would be “good” if Switzerland were to support the idea of the UK joining Efta “in an unofficial capacity”.
Schneider-Schneiter added Efta would gain muscle if the UK joined its ranks.
“Then there would be a strong club in Europe again that first and foremost wanted to work together economically, and less on a political level,” she said.
Efta delegation president Portmann also expressed his support for the idea.
“Efta would have to be made a new platform for third countries that are not in the EU but have a special relationship with [the bloc],” he said.
Swiss Economics Minister Guy Parmelin is set to meet with the UK Secretary of State for International Trade Liz Truss in London next week. The economics ministry has not confirmed statements from government sources that Efta membership will be discussed during that meeting.
Switzerland and the UK have a strong relationship based on shared economic interests and a mutual emphasis on the values of going it alone. The two countries have already drawn up a number of treaties designed to minimize the impact of a no-deal Brexit which is looking increasingly likely.