It has always struck me that, when British friends referred to “the continent” or “Europe”, they were rarely referring to themselves. That lack of a shared identity was the simplest explanation for Brexit in my mind: fewer Brits saw themselves as European than do citizens of other EU nations. And now, as I prepare myself mentally for the end of the Brexit transition period – it’ll be a strange feeling returning from a holiday at home in Austria to London on Saturday – I find myself wondering: where does the UK’s identity go from here?
For answers it’s worth looking towards Austria’s Alpine neighbour. We’ve written a fair amount about Switzerland in this newsletter over the past year, often highlighting city initiatives and its attempt to strike a middle-ground between health and economic concerns. But I’d like to focus on a different aspect: what Switzerland can teach the UK about forging a new identity.
A trade identity: It’s notable that the UK sought a “Canada-style” or “Australia-style” deal rather than looking closer to home. Despite its cherished independence, Switzerland will now have a closer trading relationship with the EU than the UK does – and one that will likely be more lucrative on a per-capita basis. A member of the border-free Schengen zone and the EU single market, Switzerland has realised that adhering to some of the EU’s rules can be mutually beneficial.
A foreign-policy identity: Switzerland has built a reputation as a neutral global arbiter. This has brought it clear benefits in the way of international institutions and multinational corporate headquarters. The UK might not be neutral but over the past few decades it has played arbiter between the US and Europe. Will that still work in 2021 and beyond?
A national identity: Switzerland’s multilingual mix of German, French and Italian regions and interests are carefully managed by a (rotating) federal council – but all still see themselves as Swiss first. The UK needs to think harder about forging a common identity between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, not to mention preserving its multicultural identity.
I can only wish my UK friends good luck in the new year; this European, for one, will be rooting for you.