Saturday, July 11, 2020
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TCW’s Brexit Watch

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Our regular report from Bern, Switzerland

SWITZERLAND is surrounded by countries where the pandemic is more advanced. Tessin, the Italian-speaking canton, borders Italy. Basel is right next door to Baden-Wurttemburg in Germany where the number of cases rose by 995 during 24 hours. The Koch Institute in Germany releases a daily report but there are questions over whether the number of deaths is accurate because autopsies do not take place as a routine check.

The Swiss are learning that relying on Germany and China for such items as face masks is not such a good idea. Swiss vice-president Guy Parmelin said he had to make representations to his German opposite number, Peter Altmeier, about the need for masks. Germany has banned exports of some medical supplies and equipment. That ban may have increased the Italians’ troubles.  

On Friday the tightening of measures to slow and stop the spread of the virus was announced, plus a big economic package. Daniel Koch, head of communicable diseases at the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health, said it would take several days for the new restrictions to slow infection rates.

‘I am confident that we will probably see a flattening of the curve in a week. I am also confident that our death rate will remain much better than that of Italy,’ Koch told a press conference. ‘But only if the population now adheres very strictly to the requirements.’

Koch said that the health infrastructure is coping with the load. There are still enough intensive care beds and hospitals are working to increase that number.

Justice ministry official Martin Dumermuth said that strict border controls had seen 16,000 people refused entry into Switzerland by March 21. The number of private cross-border crossings has plummeted 77 per cent but goods transport across borders remains normal, customs officials say.

President Sommaruga has urged to everyone in the country to follow the medical advice and stop the virus spreading. The vote in May on the Swiss People’s Party amendment to the immigration and social security laws will not now take place. The government has not made clear whether the vote is postsponed or cancelled. Sommaruga’s public line is that so much work has been done on the framework agreement with the EU that it would be a shame to waste it. I haven’t come across a vast number of Swiss who buy that line – straight from Ursula von der Leyen, they laugh.

Most people are worried about what’s happening to the economy now, never mind the EU’s plans to gobble the Swiss and pocket their nice hard Swiss francs.

Meanwhile the EU desperately briefs in the hope that Boris Johnson will fall for their trick and agree a longer transition period – long enough to make Britain share the fast-approaching bill for Italy. 

This is from Benjamin Treibe of the NZZ, probably after briefing by EU people in London. My translation:

‘The coronavirus also paralyses Brexit.

‘Fight the corona crisis at the same time as adopting a Brexit free trade agreement? London and Brussels will not manage that. The transition period should be extended.

‘In retrospect, one is always wiser. How peaceful were the times when Brexit was Britain’s most important problem. Now it would be welcome as the most urgent task, but the new coronavirus will not allow that. In an act of bureaucratic stubbornness, the EU presented the new draft free trade agreement with the UK on Thursday.

‘Since the UK’s withdrawal from the EU on 31 January, a transitional phase has been under way during which the two sides must agree on future relations – by the end of the year, according to the current legal situation. This will be difficult. Why, Michel Barnier, the EU chief negotiator, illustrated shortly afterwards: he has been infected with the coronavirus, as he announced via video message. A few hours later it turned out that his counterpart on the British side, David Frost, also showed Covid-19 symptoms and went into self-isolation.

‘Due to the small time window, the negotiations are extremely ambitious anyway. Even before Barnier’s illness, it was speculated whether the pandemic would make it impossible for them to continue in the coming weeks. Firstly, because hours of discussions on trade details have become much more difficult. Conference calls are not a solution. Secondly, because the government in London and the Commission in Brussels really do have more urgent tasks to deal with.

‘On top of that, the business community on both sides of the English Channel will also lack the leisure to deal with a potential new trade regime in the coming months. For many businesses, the focus will be simply on survival. A non-contractual end to the transition period would be even worse, namely a second shock for the economy.

‘British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is still resisting the inevitable: the extension of the transition period. There are laws in place and he has no intention of changing them, he said briefly this week. His position is understandable, since the final completion of Brexit is Johnson’s great project. But as the British government adjusts its response to the pandemic, it is likely to revise its attitude to Brexit.’

Stay healthy, don’t worry, be happy.

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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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