Cabinet minister denies UK considering Swiss-style links with EU

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

A Cabinet minister has denied a report that Rishi Sunak is considering putting the UK on the road to a Swiss-style relationship with the EU.

The Sunday Times reported the move could take place over the next decade as the Government eyes up a closer relationship with the EU that avoids the current barriers to trade.

Downing Street sources on Saturday evening rejected the report, with Health Secretary Steve Barclay echoing that on Sunday as he toured broadcast studios.

“We’ve got a Prime Minister who himself supported Brexit. I myself did and was Brexit secretary, and worked very hard to maximise our control of our laws, our borders and our money,” Mr Barclay told Sky’s Sophy Ridge.

“So, it’s absolutely important, particularly in those high-growth sectors, such as financial services, life sciences and the green industries, that we really use the Brexit freedoms we have.

“So, I don’t recognise this story at all.”

Asked if he could support a Swiss-style relationship, he said: “Well, I didn’t support that. I want to maximise the opportunities that Brexit offers.”

Switzerland and the EU have a close economic relationship based on a series of bilateral agreements, giving the country direct access to parts of the EU’s internal market including the free movement of people.

The UK is locked in long-running talks with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol, a post-Brexit arrangement for the region designed to avoid a border on the island of Ireland.

Unionists have opposed the protocol as impeding trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, placing a border in the Irish Sea.

This has resulted in the collapse of the Stormont Assembly, with top civil servants left to run government departments.

However, there have been renewed hopes in recent weeks that a deal can be secured and the relationship improved between the UK and the EU after years of tensions.

A Swiss-style veterinary agreement has been one of the options mooted by some on the EU side as a solution to the protocol dispute.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt this week admitted that Brexit had caused trade barriers with the European Union, as he said immigration will be “very important” for the economy.

Mr Hunt also insisted the UK would find a way to improve trading ties with the EU without rejoining the single market.

Simon Clarke, the former levelling up secretary, was among those to criticise any suggestion that the UK could pursue a Swiss-style arrangement.

The Tory MP tweeted: “I very much hope and believe this isn’t something under consideration. We settled the question of leaving the European Union, definitively, in 2019.”

Lord Frost, the former chief Brexit negotiator, also tweeted that he hoped if the report was correct, “the Government thinks better of these plans, fast”.

Shadow work and pensions secretary Jonathan Ashworth told Sky News that Labour does not want to rejoin the EU single market nor would it seek to adopt a Swiss-style set of arrangements.

He said: “We’re not proposing returning to the single market or the customs union, or anything like that.

“But we do want to negotiate a bespoke deal for the United Kingdom, so that our businesses can export, so that we can get those agreements on agriculture, so we can work together on security issues.”