Switzerland first to reject anti-EU alliance with Britain

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Switzerland may be outside the European Union, but the country is not looking for an “anti-EU alliance” with the UK, its foreign minister has said.

Following Theresa May’s 12-point Brexit blueprint speech, Swiss foreign minister Didier Burkhalter said: “We want good, maybe even closer ties with Britain. But we will not forge an alliance with Britain against the EU.”

This dashes the hopes of businesses that the countries could work together to negotiate with the EU over terms of access to the single market while being able to restrict freedom of movement.

In interviews with several Swiss newspapers, Mr Burkhalter said the Government had approved a plan last June to adjust bilateral relations with the UK as a result of the Brexit vote.

Mr Burkhalter said Switzerland is prepared for the UK’s plans to leave the EU – Switzerland’s main trading partner.

“We want to improve relations in several fields. It is also an opportunity [for us], if not everything has to be done via the EU,” he told the Tages-Anzeiger and Bund newspapers in a syndicated interview.

Mr Burkhalter admitted that there were several unknowable factors but said the Swiss government would soon discuss ways of launching negotiating mandates with Britain.

“Our goal is to have legal security as soon as possible,” he told the Wednesday edition of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper.

Swiss business leaders have expressed concern about the impact of Britain’s plan to leave the European single market.

The Swiss bankers’ association last year proposed an alliance with London, Hong Kong and Singapore to thrash out deals on accessing EU markets without being hit with high tariffs.

In July, Economics Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann said stable relations with Britain were crucial for the Swiss banking sector and pharmaceutical industry and called on the Swiss and UK Governments to hold talks as soon as possible.

Following Theresa May’s speech on Tuesday in which she indicated the UK would pursue a “clean break” with the EU, Mr Burkhalter said at the World Economic Forum in Davos: “At least we now know what the UK government wants and this is important for our ties with the UK”.

Wealthy Switzerland is frequently cited by Brexiteers as a nation which has flourished without being a member of the EU.

Relations between Switzerland and the EU are framed by a series of bilateral treaties where the Swiss Confederation has adopted various provisions of EU law in order to participate in the Union’s single market.

The Swiss narrowly voted to restrict immigration in a 2014 referendum, with 50.3% in favour, and have been locked in talks with the EU to implement the measure ever since.

Switzerland is currently at stalemate in its negotiations with the EU after being told it will not be able to access the single market without allowing freedom of movement.

The Swiss are anxious to strike a deal as the country depends heavily on the EU for trade, and in November its Government partially climbed down on immigration proposals.