Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the UK isn’t prepared to align itself with EU laws as part of their post-Brexit relationship, pushing back against reports his government is exploring the potential for Switzerland-style ties with the bloc.
“Under my leadership the United Kingdom will not pursue any relationship with Europe that relies on alignment with EU laws,” Sunak said at the Confederation of British Industry’s annual conference in Birmingham on Monday. Britain having its own regulatory freedom is “an important opportunity of Brexit,” he said.
Sunak’s administration is under growing pressure from business to ease economic friction with the EU, Britain’s largest trading partner, amid polling which increasingly shows Britons regret the split. At the weekend 10 Downing Street denied a Sunday Times report that the UK is considering the Swiss model of relations with the bloc, whereby improved market access is negotiated through a series of bilateral deals.
On Monday, CBI Director General Tony Danker called on Sunak to liberalize migration to plug labor shortages that are hampering growth in Britain, telling the lobby group’s conference the government should issue fixed-term visas to secure “economic migration in the areas where we aren’t going to get the people or the skills at home anytime soon.”
“We’ve got an immigration system that’s far too nervous about bringing in the skills we need,” Danker said in an interview with Bloomberg Television’s Lizzy Burden, arguing that the shortage of workers is adding to the “stagflation” pressures in the UK economy.
When asked about the prospect on Monday, Sunak said his priority is tackling illegal migration but he also wants to the UK to be a “beacon for the best and brightest.”
Managing the post-Brexit relationship with the EU is a sensitive issue for Sunak given ongoing deep divisions within his ruling Conservative Party over the topic. The report of a potential Swiss-style arrangement provoked anger from the right of the Tory Party, because it would cross many of their red lines about ties with the EU.
Switzerland is a member of the European Free Trade Association, which, thanks to about 120 bilateral accords, participates in the single market for most goods. But it also has to accept free movement of labor, EU market regulations and makes annual payments to the bloc’s budget.
Danker said that the government should avoid opening up the broader debate over Brexit and focus on potential benefits from the existing deal, such as partnerships in science and mutual recognition of professional qualifications. Those initiatives are being held up by a standoff between Britain and the EU over trading arrangements in Northern Ireland.
“Forget about the Swiss deal,” Danker said. “We just want the Boris Johnson Brexit deal to be implemented and that’s not happening right now because of the Northern Ireland Protocol,” he said, a reference to the portion of the Brexit deal governing trade in the region.
Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt told the BBC on Friday he wanted to “remove the vast majority of the trade barriers that exist between us and the EU” in the years ahead -- prompting claims that he was at odds with Sunak on Brexit.
But Sunak’s spokesman, Max Blain, told reporters on Monday the prime minister and Hunt are “absolutely” in agreement, saying the chancellor had been clear he wanted to keep the UK out of the single market.
“There are fundamental aspects of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement which we would not accept any movement on,” Blain said. “We will never again have to accept a relationship that would see a return to freedom of movement, unnecessary payments to the EU that jeopardize the full benefit of trade deals we’re pursuing.”
Blain said the government would want to make sure its relationship with the EU “continues to suit the UK’s interests, but that should not be misinterpreted as a rowing-back or a weakening of the UK’s position.”