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Why these Brits in Switzerland are worried about Brexit

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Photo: Justus Blumer
13:35 CET+01:00
They may already be living outside the European Union, but for the over 40,000 British people living in Switzerland, Britain’s forthcoming referendum on EU membership is still relevant.

On June 23rd Brits will go to the polls to decide if Britain should leave or remain in the EU.

For some Brexit supporters, Switzerland is an example of how to swim alongside the EU without jumping in the same pool.

But the future of its many bilateral agreements with the EU has looked decidedly shaky since February 9th 2014, when the Swiss voted in favour of limiting immigration.

Going against an EU founding principle – the free movement of people – has had dire consequences for Switzerland’s participation in European-wide scientific research and student exchange.

And for many British living in Switzerland, it’s shown Britain that you can’t have your cake and eat it.

The Local spoke to some of them to find out if – and why – they want their native land to stay in the European Union.

1. Because it’s better to make love not war

The European project is far from perfect, but it’s helped prevent war, further understanding between cultures and bring us closer together, feel many.

Catherine Nelson-Pollard is a British freelance writer who contributes to Swiss newspaper La Côte and edits website Living In Nyon. “I have been working to help integration across nationalities and language barriers,” she tells The Local. “The world today is interconnected and we need to recognize that. We should be connecting and learning from others.”

Conor Lennon, an Irish-British dual national who is director of the Off-Piste Radio Network in Verbier, told The Local: “I believe in the European project which in my view has brought European nations closer, convincing them to put trade ahead of war as a way of advancing national agendas.”

It’s a point of view shared by Dave Goodman, senior communications officer for the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) in Geneva, who is originally from Manchester. “I am not just British but European, and believe nations are stronger when they work together,” he tells The Local. “When countries are interdependent they don't go to war.”

2. Because it’s better to be in the club than outside looking in

“I can’t see the logic in cutting yourself off from your neighbours and main trading partners – that applies to Britain and Switzerland,” says Diccon Bewes, the British author of Swiss Watching who has lived in Switzerland for 11 years.

“Narrow nationalism hasn’t served European countries very well in the past and it won’t help either country now. For a big country like Britain, it’s far better to be in the club trying to change it from the inside than be excluded but still having to live with all the rules as a trading partner.”

Goodman agrees: “I don't believe this nonsense about countries being dictated to by Brussels,” he tells The Local. “The UK has a seat at the table, is involved in decision making with the other 27 countries and contributes to how the Union works. Leaving just means accepting all the rules without contributing to making them.”

“Britain should stay in and ensure the organisation becomes more democratic,” adds Lennon. “If Britain leaves, it has no voice in the debate.”

Even those wavering over the Brexit debate appreciate the UK’s already special position in the club.

“I was previously pro-Europe without any doubt, but lately I’ve been starting to question the advantages over the disadvantages for the UK,” says Marco Camilletti, a British-Italian dual national who works for a private bank in Geneva.

However, “The UK already has a unique position outside the eurozone giving more financial flexibility and independence. With the right political terms, yes, stay in.”

3. Because the Swiss way isn’t necessarily the best way

“The Swiss model is seen by many Brexit supporters as one ideal but I doubt the EU would ever negotiate bilaterals like that again. No country outside the EU should be able to have its cake and eat it,” says Bewes.

In any case, he adds, Switzerland’s bilateral agreements came at a hefty price – namely, substantial contributions to the EU cohesive fund and the acceptance of free movement of people.

“It seems to me many Brexiters want to leave so they can ‘control the borders’ again and they are being sold a lie,” says Goodman, something that’s evidenced by the EU’s stance towards Switzerland since the 2014 anti-immigration vote.

“The EU pulled the plug on access to EU university research programmes and Erasmus student exchange schemes that Switzerland benefitted from. Does Britain want that sort of tit-for-tat arrangement in the future?”

4. Because Brits in Switzerland could face an uncertain future

Story continues below…

If Britain leaves the EU, what then for Brits already in Switzerland, where visas are harder to obtain for non-EU citizens?

“Many are here for work... but those visas were issued based on them being EU citizens. What status would those Brits have after Brexit?” questions Bewes.

“I don't think any changes in status would be retroactive,” feels Goodman. “But should I want to live in another EU country again then it would make moving there a lot more difficult. Why would a country want to make it harder for their citizens to do things?”

Others are less sure that things won’t change here. Uncertainty is one reason why many dual nationals are clutching their second passport closely.

“Although born in the UK I'm a dual national and have always held an Irish passport,” Lennon tells The Local. “I understand many people with a similar background to me are now claiming Irish citizenship as insurance against Brexit.”

5. Because it’s better to go forwards than backwards

“Living here is part of the reason I feel Britain could consider Brexit. It presents challenges but not insurmountable ones. It does however feel like a backward step,” says banker Camilletti.

Goodman is more forthright: “I think British people, especially myself, have benefitted from being in the EU not just economically but socially and culturally,” he says, listing the working time directive and four weeks annual leave as some of the benefits.

“I have been able to easily move to live in The Netherlands and now Switzerland because I am an EU citizen... My world has expanded thanks to being an EU citizen. The EU works for Britain and the EU benefits from having the UK as a member. I believe voting to leave a club only to then negotiate access again petulant and pointless.”

“In the 21st century we should be making it easier to interact and share, learn and celebrate what unites us – and what makes us different – not putting up more barriers and boundaries.”

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