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Brexit backers who hold Switzerland as a model for the U.K. outside the European Union won’t find much support from British expatriates living in Geneva.
Attending a British-Swiss Chamber of Commerce event addressed by the head of the “Leave” campaign recently at Geneva’s Mandarin Oriental hotel, most said the idea that Bern is free of the long arm of Brussels is a myth.
While the 41,000 Britons living in Switzerland probably won’t sway the June 23 vote, many of them say Brexit campaigners fail to see how closely the fate of the Alpine country is tied to the 28-nation bloc. For rules governing anything from tax and financial services to immigration, Switzerland takes its cue from Brussels and has no leeway in harmonizing a large body of European legislation.
“Switzerland has a certain type of sovereignty, but it has to bend itself in an awful lot of ways to the laws made elsewhere,” said Andrew Gowers, global head of corporate affairs at commodities trader Trafigura Group Pte and former editor of the Financial Times, speaking in a private capacity after attending the chamber event in April. “There won’t be real sovereignty anyway because the U.K. still needs to negotiate access agreements.”
The Swiss government is struggling to renegotiate a deal with Brussels after a vote in February 2014 to impose immigration limits on EU citizens. That referendum put Switzerland at odds with a treaty that touches everything from the free movement of people to agriculture and civil aviation. The vote also prompted Brussels to slash research funding to Swiss universities, said Barbara Stcherbatcheff, a 34-year-old British citizen who works in finance in Zurich.
“Switzerland’s experience should serve as a warning to Brits who believe that they can wiggle their way out of the free movement clause without facing any consequences,” said Stcherbatcheff. “If Brexit succeeds, Britain would not end up looking like Switzerland, with its smooth-running trains and gold candlesticks in the basement.”
Switzerland’s has prospered as one of the world’s richest countries, partly by attracting multinationals and their high-paid workers. Foreigners account for about one in four of the Swiss population — a level some Brexit supporters might flinch at. That includes more than 306,000 Italians, 298,000 Germans and almost 263,000 Portuguese in a country of 8.3 million people.
In Geneva, where more than two in five residents are foreign, those expatriates in favor of Brexit at the chamber of commerce event were “emotional,” said Lorne Baring, chief executive officer of B Capital, which advises wealthy families in Britain and Switzerland. “They’re suffering from a jingoistic, post-empire mentality and they feel they will have more sovereignty after a Brexit.”
While London’s financiers warn that a vote to leave the EU will prompt overseas banks to move jobs elsewhere, David Mapley, a Briton who lives in the town of Nyon on Lake Geneva, is unfazed. “If you look at financial centers in Europe, they’re nothing compared with London,” said Mapley, CEO of renewable energy company City Windmills. “Banking has always moved its people around.”
Mapley said Switzerland has paid for its access to the EU, which accounts for 1 in 3 francs the country earns, with its membership of the passport-free Schengen zone.
“Switzerland has seen its border openness totally abused,” said Mapley. “Thank God we have the English Channel.”
With five of the last six published polls showing the “Leave” campaign ahead, Britain looks closer than ever to a vote to exit the EU. While economic imperatives make an overwhelming case for staying inside the bloc, according to Baring, those favoring Brexit are “vociferous.”
“Britain as a whole is going through an anxiety attack on what it means to be British,” he said. “Everybody loves having a cheap Polish builder, but they don’t want them to become part of society.”
By Giles Broom, Dylan Griffiths and Andy Hoffman (Bloomberg)