Daniel Pedroletti, a UK-based Swiss citizen and president of long-established Swiss community group New Helvetic Society London, says there was “a big misunderstanding” in Britain surrounding Switzerland’s position outside the EU in the run-up to last Thursday’s British referendum.
“Britain could probably achieve something similar [to Switzerland] but that’s not what the people here want,” he told The Local on Monday.
“They want to be like Switzerland but they don’t know that Switzerland has to pay an enormous amount to the EU and accept the laws without being an influence [on them].”
“They don’t realize that if they want a similar agreement they will have to accept the free movement of people and pay high fees and accept some laws which they would have no influence on.”
Though not a member of the EU, Switzerland has over 120 bilateral agreements in place with the bloc – its main trading partner – including the free movement of people, which it signed up to in 1999, along with a raft of other measures aimed at giving it access to the single market.
And as the Swiss people have recently discovered, any attempt to limit immigration from EU countries and therefore violate the free movement principle can have major consequences on EU collaboration in other areas.
What’s more, despite not being a member, it still contributes to the EU’s budget and specific projects such as the 2007 enlargement.
With many leave voters wooed by suggestions Britain would save money and limit immigration if it left the EU, touting Switzerland as an example for the UK to follow was part of "all this misinformation" during the campaign, says Pedroletti.
“I think that politicians, like in any country, some are well informed and some are not. When some politicians were saying ‘no way, [let’s be] like Switzerland’, it was really disappointing.”
Even a contact in the House of Lords – Britain’s second chamber – told Pedroletti he was “astonished how little knowledge his colleagues had about Switzerland”.
Pedroletti has seen this blindness over Switzerland for many years, through organizing discussions at the New Helvetic Society London. “We sometimes have guests from the quite far right here,” he said, who “didn’t want to hear” about the true nature of Switzerland’s relations with the EU.
As well as misinformation “on both sides” during the Brexit campaign, part of this lack of understanding among voters was down to their “passion”, he said.
“I hate classifying people but I think the educated people who want to look deeper into it, these people would understand,” said Pedroletti.
“But there is so much passion. It’s nothing to do with a study of the problems, the consequences. They just follow, dare I say it, [UK tabloids] The Sun and The Daily Mail.”
Now both countries must negotiate a new way forward with the EU, with Switzerland pushing to resolve its immigration issue before the EU occupies itself with Britain's exit.
“It’s a bit of a mess, you know, but I strongly believe that the British people will find a way, whatever that is,” Pedroletti told The Local.
“What is sad for Switzerland is, I think that our problems with the EU and this immigration problem will be put on the back burner because it’s more important to sort out the mess with the UK first.”
“Perhaps they will grow something in parallel and have a similar solution for both countries. I think nobody knows.”