Trip no. 1: Ski racing in Switzerland

Keywords: UK, Switzerland, sport diplomacy, sport, skiing, Schengen,
Borders crossed: 2

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          My first trip of the year saw me fly into Zurich, wince at the price of basically everything in the small Swiss ski resort of Mürren, and eventually don a pair of skis to race in the 74th annual Inferno race. The Inferno is a 14.9 km-long downhill ski race, first created in 1928 by a bunch of adrenaline-seeking Brits, setting off from the top of the Schilthorn mountain at 2,970m high, zipping down past Mürren, to the village of Lauterbrunnen at 800m high, and this was my first experience of it. This year the race was again oversubscribed, with 1,850 racers from 25 different countries across the globe descending on the snowy, car-free, chocolate-box Alpine village of Mürren.

          Sport has been hailed as an effective peace-building tool and a means to repair or re-open injured diplomatic ties where traditional negotiations fail, uniting different nationalities around a common non-political interest. Switzerland’s record of neutrality for over 200 years also makes it a suitable setting for many international negotiations and summits, and similarly an apt starting point from which to consider the course of the UK-EU negotiations on Brexit.

          Having no mountains sufficiently steep or high in the British Isles for skiing at home, the British invasion of the Alps grows steadily every decade, with certain villages like Mürren evolving from remote, quaint and quiet farming villages into prosperous and wealthy enclaves for foreigners (many of whom are British) and Swiss alike. The local residents seem happy with the tourist income they receive from the British penchant for skiing in Mürren – many of the Swiss have even married these British visitors – and during my week in Mürren I too stayed in a dual nationality Swiss-Scottish household.

          The Swiss decision to remain outside of the EU, but inside Schengen, is one often mooted as a possible model for a post-Brexit UK. Switzerland very nearly joined the European Economic Area in 1992, which would have entailed the free movement of people, goods, services and capital within the European Single Market. But EEA membership was rejected by the Swiss population in a close-call referendum, and Switzerland has since pursued a bilateral approach to free trade and other agreements with the EU, rather than full membership.[1]

          As a mountainous country at the heart of the Alps, Switzerland has historically been simultaneously cut off and protected from its larger neighbours France, Germany and Italy by its natural topography. These geographically formed borders can be considered akin to Britain’s natural sea border, which I’ve argued elsewhere is instrumental to the island mentality and isolationism of Britain. Crucially though, the Swiss voted in favour of joining the Schengen Area in 2005, involving the abolishment of border checks and allowing free movement of people, which the UK and Ireland had opted-out of in the 1997 Amsterdam Treaty.

         More recently in February 2014, the Swiss narrowly voted (by 50.3% to 49.7%) in a referendum to limit mass migration through quotas, a move which would violate the terms of the Schengen Agreement and thus terminate all of Switzerland’s other co-dependent bilateral treaties with the EU – obviously proving controversial.[2] As an insightful premonition of upcoming Brexit talks, in their negotiations with the Swiss on immigration, the EU didn’t budge on its position that access to the European Single Market is inextricably linked to the principle of free movement of people, and Switzerland consequently hasn’t yet achieved its desired quotas. With border control being one of the Brexiteers’ key objectives, the Swiss model thus won’t deliver them the level of ‘control’ that they seek.

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[1] Marc-Andre Miserez, “Switzerland poised to keep EU at arm’s length,” Swiss Info, last modified December 2, 2012, http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/20-years-on_switzerland-poised-to-keep-eu-at-arm-s-length/34083578.
[2] “Votation No 580 Tableau récapitulatif,” Le Conseil fédéral du Gouvernement suisse, accessed July 15, 2017, https://www.admin.ch/ch/f/pore/va/20140209/det580.html#.

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