A cabinet minister has denied a report that Rishi Sunak’s government is considering putting the UK on the path to a Swiss-style relationship with the EU.
The Sunday Times reported that the move could take place over the next decade as the government seeks a closer relationship with the EU that avoids current trade barriers.
Any such change, just a few years after Boris Johnson secured a deal with the EU after years of back-and-forth negotiations, is likely to inflame Brexiteers.
Downing Street sources on Saturday evening had dismissed the report, with Health Secretary Steve Barclay echoing it on Sunday as he toured transmission studios.
The former Brexit secretary told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday that he did not recognize the report.
The Times suggested that, behind closed doors, some members of the government have indicated that the pursuit of a frictionless trade relationship with the bloc requires moving to a Swiss-style deal over the next 10 years.
According to the document, this would not extend to a return to freedom of movement.
“We have a Prime Minister who himself supported Brexit. I did that myself and was Brexit Secretary, and I worked very hard to maximize our control of our laws, our borders and our money.” Barclay said.
“So it is absolutely important, particularly in those high-growth sectors such as financial services, life sciences and green industries, that we really use the Brexit freedoms that we have.
“So I don’t recognize that story at all.”
Asked if he could support a Swiss-style relationship, he said: “Well, I didn’t support it. I want to maximize the opportunities that Brexit offers.”
Switzerland and the EU have a close economic relationship based on a series of bilateral agreements, which give the country direct access to parts of the EU’s internal market, including the free movement of people.
Britain is deadlocked in long-running talks with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol, a post-Brexit deal for the region designed to avoid a border on the island of Ireland.
Unionists have opposed the protocol to prevent trade between Northern Ireland and Britain by putting a border in the Irish Sea.
This has led to the collapse of the Stormont Assembly, with senior civil servants to run government departments.
However, hopes have been renewed in recent weeks that a deal can be reached and that the relationship between the UK and the EU will improve after years of strain.
A Swiss-style veterinary agreement has been one of the options mooted by some in the EU as a solution to the protocol dispute, while in the years following the Brexit vote, an agreement inspired by the relationship between Switzerland and the EU was seen as one among many. options for the UK after voting to leave the bloc.
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt admitted this week that Johnson’s Brexit deal caused damaging trade barriers with the European Union, as he said immigration will be “very important” to the economy.
Hunt also insisted that the UK would find a way to improve trade ties with the EU without rejoining the single market.
On Sunday, former work and pensions secretary Chloe Smith said seeking a new Swiss-style deal would not be a “wise course” for the government.
“I don’t think that’s a particularly wise path at the moment,” he told Times Radio.
“I think the government has already responded this morning to those particular ideas, and I don’t think this is one that has gone ahead.”
Simon Clarke, the former level secretary, was also among those who criticized the idea.
The Tory MP tweeted: “I hope very much and I think this is not something to consider. We resolved the issue of leaving the European Union, definitively, in 2019.”
Lord Frost, the former chief Brexit negotiator, also tweeted that he hoped that if the report was correct, “the Government thinks better of these plans, quickly”.
Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Jonathan Ashworth told Sky News that Labor does not want to rejoin the EU’s single market and will not seek to adopt a Swiss-style set of deals.
He said: “We are not proposing to go back to the single market or the customs union or anything like that.
“But we do want to negotiate a tailor-made deal for the UK, so that our companies can export, so that we can get those agreements on agriculture and we can work together on security issues.”