Free Movement of Persons and Brexit – Some Swiss Experience from Which the United Kingdom Could Benefit

in: The End of the Ever Closer Union, Hannes Hofmeister (ed.), Nomos/Hart, 2018, pp. 33-53

24 Pages Posted: 12 Aug 2016 Last revised: 25 Nov 2018

Date Written: 2018


On June 24rd, 2016, the United Kingdom has begun to look for a new arrangement with the European Union, after the majority of the British people had voted in favour of Brexit. Switzerland was in a similar situation on December 7th, 1992, the day after a slim majority of its people had rejected the idea of joining the European Economic Area. Right then, Switzerland’s began to look for new ways to arrange itself with the EU. Switzerland consequently opted for a special approach requiring a new, separate agreement with the EU whenever an issue needed to be settled. What appeared as a fresh, even original idea at the beginning, soon yielded a thicket of agreements entangling Switzerland and causing it to lose sight of the values which had driven its search in the first place – namely democracy and sovereignty. A great deal of experience has accumulated, though – which may now prove useful for the United Kingdom.

There is more, though. Populists in the UK won the Brexit vote by amplifying migration. For Nigel Farage, it was perfectly clear that the only way for the UK to be able to control those who crossed the drawbridge was to leave the EU. Populists in the UK managed to place free movement of persons at the heart of the Brexit vote, playing on the fears of the people – and they won the vote on this agenda. Not long before, in early 2014, populists in Switzerland had forced a vote by the Swiss people on the introduction of an immigration quota, which would jeopardize the free movement of persons between Switzerland and the EU, the core of the complex web of agreements established in the wake of the EEA rejection in 1992. Populists then cast a spell on the people of Switzerland by amplifying migration – and they won the vote. Since then, the relationship between Switzerland and the EU has been put on hold, pending resolution of the incompatibility between a constitutionally mandated immigration quota and the free movement of persons under the agreement with the EU – like everything has been put on hold in the UK after the vote for Brexit. Both Switzerland and the UK now have to attempt to find a new way forward, a way which accommodates the fear of waves of incoming labour expressed in both popular votes. The experience Switzerland made in this regard since the vote of early 2014 again may prove interesting for the UK.

This article explores the basic options available for third states to arrange movement of labour with the EU and its member states, thereby aiming to lay out the best way forward for both the UK and Switzerland. The article, in particular, explores the idea of restricting immigration through quotas and reflects on how to make this work. The article also shows how the situations of the UK and Switzerland vis‑à‑vis the EU are connected, for better or for worse. It begins by explaining in simple words the law of free movement of persons in the EU internal market in section 1. Though this section may be obvious for some readers, it is necessary, because free movement of persons has been heated up and somewhat distorted during the discussions preceding the vote(s). The section shows that things are clear and securely rooted. In section 2, alternative arrangements for movement of labour are explored, namely the European Economic Area (section 2.1), the “bilateral” arrangement between the EU and Switzerland (section 2.2), and the arrangement between the EU and Turkey (section 2.3) – all with a view to the UK’s and Switzerland’s options in the future. Some of the experience Switzerland made over the past 25 years, and the past two years in particular, is also woven into this section. Section 3 then concludes briefly.

Keywords: Brexit, Free Movement of Persons, Fundamental Freedoms, Union Citizenship, Free Movement of Workers, Labour, Internal Market, European Union, European Economic Area, Turkey, Switzerland, Bilateral Agreements, External Relations of the EU

Suggested Citation

Burri, Thomas, Free Movement of Persons and Brexit – Some Swiss Experience from Which the United Kingdom Could Benefit (2018). in: The End of the Ever Closer Union, Hannes Hofmeister (ed.), Nomos/Hart, 2018, pp. 33-53 , Available at SSRN: or

Thomas Burri (Contact Author)

University of St. Gallen ( email )

Bodanstrasse 3
Saint Gallen, St. Gallen CH-9000


Do you have negative results from your research you’d like to share?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics