What would Brexit mean for Switzerland?

An EU official hangs the Union Jack next to the European Union flag at the European Commission HQ in Brussels on 16 February, 2016 Keystone

As Britain votes whether or not to remain in the European Union, rounds up the arguments for and against and the multiple underlying issues surrounding Thursday's vote.

This content was published on June 23, 2016 - 10:33

The opinion pollsExternal link are still showing that voters’ intentions are neck and neck. BookmakersExternal link, who stand to make a pile of money for getting their forecasts right, have for weeks had the Remain camp as favourites, but the Leave odds have shortened in recent days.

One of the most intriguing things about the Brexit vote is that it is just as difficult to determine the possible consequences of a Brexit as the result itself. A report by the British-Swiss Chamber of CommerceExternal link in March found that half of the 185 companies surveyed thought they would be worse off if Britain left the EU. Only 13.5% of the Swiss and British firms said prospects would improve.

But a separate survey of Swiss finance chiefs in May, by Deloitte, found an overwhelming number of respondents completely underwhelmed by any thought of negative consequences for their businesses.

Companies and trade groups are also split on how things would look in Brexitland. UBS bank, which has 5,500 workers in Britain, thinks the chances of Brexit are slim and that the effect on the Swiss franc negligible even if it does occur. The Swiss Business Federation also thinks life will go on as normal even if Britain exits the EU.

However, other business lobby groups and trade organisations, such as the Switzerland Global Enterprise have warned of dire consequences for Swiss exporters.

Swiss model

Thoughts of Britain copying Switzerland’s model if it did leave the EU were pretty much quashed by a meeting of politicians, business people and journalists in Geneva in May. But the meeting was divided on what the impact would be for British nationals living in Switzerland and the Swiss resident in Britain.

Some users have expressed their anxiety at the possible consequences of Brexit. Unfortunately, it is pretty hard to nail down the exact implications as no country has ever left the EU before.

In the meantime, Switzerland is waiting somewhat impatiently in the wings for the result to be known. This is because Switzerland has its own problems with the EU and negotiations have been put on ice until the Brexit issue is resolved.

Most notably, the Swiss government is obliged to present its interpretation of an anti-immigration 2014 vote that calls for limits to be placed on numbers of foreign workers coming to Switzerland.

Switzerland’s entire future relationship hinges on how Bern negotiates a solution with Brussels. In the meantime, students and researchers remain frozen out of the EU’s Erasmus+ student exchange programme and its Horizon 2020 science research projects.

And all this uncertainty is playing havoc with the Swiss franc, only making life more difficult for the Swiss National Bank’s efforts to stop it from appreciating too much against the euro.

For many people in both Britain and Switzerland, the referendum result can't come quickly enough. At least then, people will have a clearer picture of what awaits them.

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