Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter during a visit to China
Didier Burkhalter, responding to Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit speech, said: “We want good, maybe even closer ties with Britain. But we will not forge an alliance with Britain against the EU.”
This will come as a disappointment to business leaders who had held out hopes of a close working relationship with the European Alpine country as while the country has close business ties with the EU it is not a member of the single market and has not signed up to free movement of its citizens across EU borders.
Mr Burkhalter said Switzerland is prepared for the UK’s plans to leave the EU – Switzerland’s main trading partner.
He said: “We want to improve relations in several fields. It is also an opportunity [for us], if not everything has to be done via the EU.”
He added that his government had approved plan last June to adjust bilateral agreements with the UK as a result of the Brexit referendum.
However, while Mr Burkhalter admitted there were still a number of unknowable factors in any potential agreement he added the Swiss government would discuss ways of launching negotiations with Britain in the near future.
Prime Minister Theresa May during a meeting with business leaders
He said: “Our goal is to have legal security as soon as possible.”
Both the banking and pharmaceutical industries had been hoping for strong ties between the two countries and last year the Swiss bankers’ association had proposed an alliance between itself, the City, Hong Kong and Singapore as a way of gaining access to the EU market without being hit by high protectionist tariffs.
In July, Economics Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann said stable relations with Britain were crucial for the Swiss banking sector and pharmaceutical industry and called on the Swiss and UK Governments to hold talks as soon as possible.
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Relations between Switzerland and the EU are framed by a series of bilateral treaties where the Swiss Confederation has adopted various provisions of EU law in order to participate in the Union’s single market.
But the Swiss voted to restrict immigration in a 2014 referendum, in a close vote and has been negotiating with the EU ever since with the two sides effectively in stalemate.
Partly as a result of that vote and the closing of the Balkan land route to Europe requests for asylum in Switzerland fell by around a third last year.
Prime Minister Theresa May (centre) arrives with colleagues
It forecast around 24,500 people would seek asylum this year but cautioned this could rise to 32,000 depending on the flow of refugees via the Mediterranean and whether a deal Europe struck with Turkey to hold back migrants held up.
In December alone, requests for asylum fell 64 percent from a year earlier, bringing the full-year drop to 31 percent after the Balkan route was interrupted in March and Swiss authorities took a tough line on the border with Italy last summer.
Neutral and landlocked Switzerland got just a fraction of the roughly 1.3million requests for asylum across Europe last year as countries continued to process the wave of people that arrived in 2015.