Brexit voters ‘misinformed’ on Swiss relations with EU

Leave campaigners calling for Britain to be like Switzerland were bogged down with misinformation and did not truly understand Switzerland’s relationship with the EU, the president of a Swiss society in the UK has told The Local.

Brexit voters ‘misinformed’ on Swiss relations with EU
The Swiss president meets with European leaders on the first Gotthard train. Photo: Ruben Sprich/AFP

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.”

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Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Brexit really does mean that Britons are no longer EU citizens. Claudia Delpero looks at whether there's any other way they can keep their rights.

Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Britons lost EU citizenship when the UK left the EU, on 1st February 2020. 

It is the first time the EU’s top court has rules on the matter, after a number of legal cases challenged this specific Brexit outcome. The decision also sets a precedent should other countries decide to leave the bloc in the future. 

What has the EU Court decided?

The Court of Justice decided on a case brought by a British woman living in France.

Before Brexit, she could vote and stand as a candidate in her town of residence, Thoux. But after the UK withdrawal from the EU, she was removed from the electoral roll and excluded from the municipal elections that took place in March 2020, during the transition period.  

As the mayor refused her appeal to restore the registration, she took the case to the regional court in Auch, which agreed to request an interpretation of the rules to the EU top court. 

Julien Fouchet, the barrister supporting her and several other cases on the EU citizenship of British nationals, argued that the loss of EU citizenship and voting rights was disproportionate. It would also be contrary to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, given that the woman also lost her voting rights in the UK, having lived abroad for more than 15 years.

Alice Bouillez, who has lived in France since 1984 and is married to a French national, could have applied for French citizenship, but did not do so because she said “this was not necessary” before Brexit and, as a former UK official, she had taken an oath of allegiance to the Queen.

On Thursday the Court of Justice announced the decision about her case. The court ruled that the “possession of the nationality of a member state is an essential condition for a person to be able to acquire and retain the status of citizen of the Union and to benefit fully from the rights attaching to that status.”

The court therefore confirmed that British nationals automatically lost their EU citizenship as a result of Brexit and, as a consequence, Britons also lost their voting and electoral rights in municipal elections in the EU (unless the country where they live set different rules). 

What is EU citizenship?

EU citizenship was introduced by the Treaty of Maastricht of 1992, when borders were opening and the bloc was integrating economically after the end of the Cold War. 

Under the treaty, every person holding the nationality of an EU member state is a citizen of the Union. EU citizenship is additional and does not replace nationality, the treaty specifies. But this creates the first form of a transnational citizenship that grants rights across borders.

EU citizens have the right to access each other’s territory, job market and services under the principle of non-discrimination. If they are economically active, they have the right to reside in other EU states and be joined by family members, access healthcare at the same conditions of nationals (for emergency treatment also when travelling temporarily), obtain social security benefits and see their professional qualifications recognised.

Beyond free movement, at the core of EU citizenship there are also political rights, such as participating in the European Parliament election, voting and standing as candidates in municipal elections when living in other EU countries, receiving consular protection from other EU states outside the EU, and taking part in European Citizens’ Initiatives asking to the EU to legislate on certain matters. 

Which EU citizenship rights have Britons lost with Brexit? 

For British citizens who were living in the EU before Brexit, the Withdrawal Agreement protects some of these rights. Britons covered by deal have their residence, access to work and education, healthcare, social security and qualifications secured, but only in the country where they were living before Brexit.

But the right to free movement in other EU states, consular protection in third countries, and the political rights attached to EU citizenship were lost, the Court confirmed. 

For British citizens in the UK, the trade and cooperation agreement has preserved some social security rights and, in theory, the possibility to have professional qualifications recognized when moving to an EU country. These provisions however lack details and may take a long time before they work in practice. 

As the “European Union” no longer features on British passports, the possibility to access EU lanes at airports to skip passport control queues has also vanished. 

“The loss of those treasured rights has been clear to those of us living in the EU from the early days of Brexit. But for Brits in the UK, the realities of life outside the EU, and the consequences of Brexit, are only just dawning. Long queues at the borders, roaming charges, obstacles to working abroad, etc. are the new reality,” said Sue Wilson, Chair of the group Remain in Spain. 

While she said the court’s decision was “no real surprise,” she argued that “this is not the Brexit the public were promised, or that the majority voted for.”

Can British citizens get some of these rights back?

Julien Fouchet was disappointed at the Court decision and promised to continue the legal fight, bringing the case at the European Court of Human Rights (which is not an EU institution). 

Other two cases on the matter of EU citizenship for British nationals are still pending at the Court of Justice of the EU. One of them aims to determine whether EU citizenship is a “fundamental status” that cannot be removed but Thursday’s decision could have already provided the answer.

Another option to reconsider some of the rights is the renegotiation of EU-UK trade agreement, when it will be reviewed in 2025. 

Meanwhile, the EU is revising the rules for non-EU citizens living in EU countries on a long-term basis, making it easier to move across borders. 

Applying for citizenship is so far the only option to regain voting rights, although not all EU countries allow dual nationality. 

Sue Wilson, who has long campaigned for the UK to stay in the EU, said: “There is only one way to restore the loss of our rights, and that’s to rejoin the single market, rejoin the customs union, and eventually, rejoin the European Union… Until that day, we will continue to be second class citizens whose rights have been diminished for the sake of an ideology.”