27/07/2018 08:56 BST | Updated 27/07/2018 08:56 BST

Brexit And The Big Swiss Compromise

Respecting the Leave spirit whilst remaining in the EU is not impossible

Christopher Furlong via Getty Images

Deal or no deal? Soft or hard Brexit? Two years on, and we’re still scratching our heads. One thing we do know: the prime motive for voting Leave in 2016 was to keep foreigners from coming in. Most of the 51.89% majority had that in mind; and although Leave voters only counted for 37% of those eligible to vote, immigration is here to stay as a matter of grave concern.

Just as concerned were the Swiss in 2014. Two years and four months before the Brexit referendum, the Alpine country approved by 50.3% – another narrow vote – a ballot initiative launched by the conservative Swiss People’s Party to restrict immigration from the European Union.

Nonetheless, at the end of 2016 a compromise with Brussels effectively annulled quotas on EU citizens, but the agreement still allowed for favourable treatment of Swiss-based job applicants.

Rejection of a European supranational body has always been a strong undercurrent in the British debate. Strands of right- and left-wing politics have offered their own specific – and very divergent – reasons for abandoning Europeans to their destiny. Everyone was aware of this across the Channel. Brexit came as a big surprise only to those who ignored history or only knew Britain superficially.

Things got serious after 2004 when the EU saw its last massive expansion. It subsequently grew even further, but never so dramatically. Perhaps it’s time for it to shrink a bit. Why not? Dissent might encourage self-assessment on the part of the EU27.

There’s a big but, though. In fact, what about soft Brexit? Is it attainable? Is it even desirable? Can you tap into the single market and reject the four freedoms making up the very market? Business is about openness, after all, about being free.

By definition, soft Brexit can’t stop freedom of movement. Switzerland and Norway accept freedom of movement. The Swiss government had to revert the outcome of a similar referendum: freedom of movement is still allowed. Yet, voters wanted Brexit to stop people. And as Theresa May’s Government’s policies have time and again confirmed; you can only stop people with hard Brexit.

But hard Brexit could be calamitous, as many among the British public seem to have come to realise. So, a hard Brexit is unlikely to pass; and EU citizens could well continue to move in and out of the UK. The EEA, of which Norway is a member, allows freedom of movement. Soft Brexit enthusiasts would like to copy Norway – but that’s not what leave voters wanted.

Workers can’t be stopped. As research keeps telling us, they benefit Britain too. Most newcomers are young and pay tax. At times, it feels that the whole Brexit issue is much ado about nothing and that Britain, with its opt-outs – no Euro, no Schengen – already had the best of both worlds. Now that things are a bit stuck, the Swiss 2016 jobs compromise with Brussels might offer some inspiration. Respecting the Leave spirit whilst remaining in the EU is not impossible.