EU – Hard borders and simple answers

I wonder if Libby Purves, writing in today’s Times, realises the irony of her seemingly disparaging remark about the Swiss. In a reference to the inefficiencies of our “stumglebum government,” she comments, “Doesn’t it make you wish that you were Swiss?”

It would not have worried Dominic Lawson, writing the day before in The Sunday Times. He quotes Michael Ambûhl, Switzerland’s chief negotiator with the EU who, he claims, “….is regarded as having done an outstanding job.” I worked in Switzerland for five years and it is no surprise to read this negotiator’s comments: to the effect that the Swiss have no wish to be in the EU, or in a customs union, that advantage should be taken to negotiate trade deals independently of the EU, and that claims that a frictionless border would be impossible in Ireland are ridiculous.

Ambûhl makes this very clear, referring to the far, far greater amount of friction-free traffic every day, across Swiss borders – 2.2 million people and 23,000 lorries – far, far in access of the movement between Northern Ireland and The Republic. Switzerland’s border with the EU is one which I have crossed hundreds of times without the slightest of delays or difficulties.

There are other aspects of life in Switzerland which Libby Purves should ponder, aspects which might well appeal to our prime minister who, we are told, enjoys holidays there: an opportunity for referenda four times a year, a currency which has doubled in value against the pound in the last twenty years, an informed interest in business matters and other people’s affairs, and women’s safety.

My wife ran a girls’ boarding house in an international school while we worked there. Her colleagues, and her charges felt safe wherever they went, but is not just women’s safety that is protected; if you wish to move house in Switzerland you must first produce a clean criminal record check from your local police; if you have convictions you may not be allowed to move.

On the day that the Euro was introduced I was having a hair cut in Gstaad. In the shop there were three German-speaking Swiss, one of whom spoke French, an Italian barber who also spoke German and a sole Brit, me, who could manage in French or Italian. Whatever any one of us said had to be translated at least once and we managed for some thirty minutes while I explained that the UK was not joining the euro – and they explained why shops in Switzerland seemed suddenly to have added prices in euros in all their shops.

Oh, I almost forgot. Once a decision has been made in a Swiss referendum, there is no return to the topic for five years!

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