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TCW’s Brexit Watch


Our regular report from Bern, Switzerland

THE EU will try to delay talks, blame Covid-19 and gamble for a longer transition period. Anything to keep control of us. Boris Johnson and team should keep an eye on the horizons, forward and aft, port and starboard. 

Let’s remember how far we have come. This is the Daily Express of 29 June 2017 reporting the first piece I wrote about Brexit. Reading it again nearly three years later, I see no reason to change anything I said. The original article can still be found on the Veterans for Britain website. 

Trade talks with the EU have taken a back seat in Switzerland as they have in the EU. There is more concern about the pandemic increasing the financial pressures on the eurozone and Italy in particular.

Donald Trump’s banning of flights from the Continent caused quite a stir here. Although not a fan of Donald I have to say that he would have been advised by Home Security and most presidents listen to them since 9/11.

On Friday afternoon four members of the Federal Council held a press conference where they outlined further measures to combat the spread of Covid-19. These involve closing schools for a month and limiting restaurants and events to 50 people. I will risk a forecast that many people will mutter and mothers will complain more loudly. A friend pointed out that for all these new measures, every day 70,000 people cross the border from Italy to work in the Italian speaking canton of Switzerland.  

Many people, including Mrs Hill, watched Boris Johnson on the BBC with his medical and research chiefs. They applaud his seeking expert scientific advice and following it. One of the new Federal Councillors, Ignazio Cassis, is a doctor and some, including Mrs H, voted for him because they thought he would bring a bit of science-based common sense to the government’s business. They are disappointed. Another critique is that two of the women involved have no children. The Swiss President, Simonetta Sommaruga, is a piano teacher by profession. Karin Keller-Sutter has a husband and a dog. The idea of closing the schools and the ski resorts at the same time smacks of people who don’t understand what it’s like to have a family with children. They point to the huge number of Austrian children sent to mountain resorts in Switzerland during the war. Surely that’s what the Federal Council should organise for children with no school. Once they’re up in the mountains they’re breathing much better air than at home in a city or town. This morning the sun is shining on powder snow all over the Alps.

One thing the Federal Councillors did achieve on Friday the Thirteenth was to provoke ridiculous panic. Supermarkets were stripped. Young police boys and girls were sent to our local Co-op to keep an eye in case the wealthiest yuppies in the Canton started squabbling over the veg and fruit! 

The NZZ, the Swiss German-language daily newspaper, often carries the current anti-British tirade. Brigitte Ulmer, one of its reporters, lives in London but also works in Zurich. Her March 13 rant about Britain is classic socialist hypocrisy. Here’s how it began:

How wonderful the Empire was! From the nostalgia for the British Empire, it goes straight to the Brexit

A London exhibition shows Indian art that was commissioned by English colonialists. The handling of the imperial heritage is still problematic . . .

But what about art that explicitly shows the agents of imperialism? Art, in other words, that could bring the debate about the achievements and brutalities of British imperialism into the consciousness of the wider public? 

I’ll spare you the rest.  

Elsewhere in the paper was comment on the UK’s reaction to US travel restrictions before the US included Britain in the ban. London, it reported, was not sparing in its criticism. This is my record of the still relevant points:

London rejects travel restrictions and does not want to impose any.

Great Britain and Ireland are exempt from the entry ban imposed by the US President. Nevertheless, London is not sparing with criticism of the Trump measure.

There had been no agreement between Boris Johnson and Donald Trump prior to his decision.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak expressed himself more clearly. In a BBC interview, he criticised the measure announced by President Trump and said that a ban on entry was not the appropriate means of permanently preventing the spread of the pathogen. ‘There is no evidence of this,’ he said, adding that the British government, for its part, does not plan to impose such entry restrictions on passengers on flights from the Schengen area.

Further voices of experts fundamentally questioned the effectiveness of Trump’s barrier. A professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, for example, told the Telegraph that this step could only slow down the spread of the epidemic for a short period of time, while the US is one of the countries where domestic infection is currently accelerating most. Nor would the exceptions made for the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland make any sense, as the virus has long been known to have spread in those countries.

Sunak stressed the government was determined to take the ‘right steps at the right time’, in response to those voices that accused Prime Minister Boris Johnson of having been too hesitant in taking action in recent weeks. So far, the government has not ordered any drastic steps, but has essentially been content with calls for precautionary measures.

A sign of new urgency was the convening of a meeting of the so-called ‘Cobra’ Committee, chaired by Boris Johnson and his then announcing a ‘new phase’ in the fight against the epidemic which could include measures such as the closure of schools and a ban on major events (since ordered).

It’s all changed again since then. The Swiss and German papers will be busy playing catch-up.

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Adrian Hill
Adrian Hill
Adrian Hill. Former soldier and diplomat, afterwards member of CBI Council and author.

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