Tuesday, October 20, 2020
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TCW’s Brexit Watch

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Our regular report from Bern, Switzerland 

IF YOU want a crib sheet for how to keep the voters informed about lock-ins and unlocks, here’s one from Europe’s oldest democracy – over 800 years for those interested. We were becoming democratic in Saxon days until William the Conqueror invaded and overnight England was ruled by 13 men. The Swiss had only one interruption like that, from a small Corsican brigand chief, who offered them something less than they’d had for 600 years. His offer was rejected. Nonetheless, it was the Bern Regiment who fought and died as the rearguard at the Beresina – students still sing the song about it. 

Leaving all that aside, the news here is that the Swiss Federal Council are gradually to ease measures against the coronavirus. Their media release is worth reading. 

The first phase started yesterday, on April 27, with an easing of measures on businesses where there is only a low level of direct personal contact and precautionary measures can be put in place. It covers dental, physiotherapy and medical massage practices, and should prevent the negative consequences of people forgoing treatments and examinations.

The second phase commences on May 11, when it is planned that most schools, shops and markets will reopen. In phase three, set to commence on June 8, upper secondary schools, vocational schools and higher education institutions will be allowed to resume face-to-face teaching. At the same time, entertainment and leisure establishments such as museums, libraries, botanical gardens and zoos may reopen, and restrictions on gatherings could be relaxed. 

The Federal Council will take a decision regarding the details of this phase on May 27 and has not yet determined further phases, for example when large-scale events will be allowed to go ahead.

Not everyone is happy with the speed at which the Federal Council is relaxing measures or about the re-opening of schools next month. The concerns raised here are about social distancing and hygiene and should interest those making that decision for British children.

The Swiss lockdown easing decision comes against a background of falling numbers of cases reported here. The graphs show a dramatic drop in daily infections and a significant drop in deaths. The latest numbers from the Robert Koch Institute also show cases slowly decreasing.

Other business is not quite normal. Far from proving the EU’s case – namely, that talks with Britain should be resumed only after our government has signed up for another year or two of transition, thereby caged for the lion’s share of the coronavirus bills for the eurozone – instead the Swiss are hedging their bets.

The Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis was quoted in the Saturday press as saying that reaching a framework agreement with the European Union is no longer the country’s top priority on account of the pandemic: ‘What matters now is to save lives and avoid catastrophic economic consequences.’

Judging from the general news out of the eurolands, there may not be a eurozone in a few months, at least not as presently constituted. Why not keep your powder dry until the Swiss voters decide whether they want the Schengen Agreement modified or not? This vote was due on May 17 but was put back because of the virus. No new date has been chosen. Brussels and Bern have spent years negotiating a framework accord to replace more than 120 bilateral agreements. The deal now, according to the minister, will not be up for rediscussion before late 2020 or early 2021. By that time the result of the British/EU negotiations should provide a rather handy compass for how Switzerland should play its hand. 

Moreover, the Federal Parliament has moved into the large Bern Expo centre where the members can have desks and chairs spaced well apart, plus sufficient staff and communications back-up. It will be easier to haggle with the EU when everyone is back in their own offices, particularly the civil servants. Time will also do more damage to the eurozone economies. And when a man knows he’s to be hanged in the morning, it concentrates the mind wonderfully. I’m sure our modern Johnson knows that one by heart. 

Finally, it looks as if Switzerland will gradually open its borders in consultation with neighbouring countries now that Switzerland, with its sufficient hospital capacity, has the pandemic under control. The government’s delegate for Covid-19, Daniel Koch, warns however that the population must stay disciplined in face of a possible second wave.

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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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