As UK voters cool off on Brexit, UK softens tone on EU

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LONDON (AP) — The British government on Sunday denied a report that it was seeking a “Swiss-style” relationship with the European Union that would remove many of the economic barriers erected by Brexit — even as it tries to improve ties with the bloc after years of acrimony.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay told Sky News ‘I don’t acknowledge’ the Sunday Times report, insisting the UK was still determined to ‘use the Brexit freedoms we have’ by deviating from EU rules in key areas.

Switzerland maintains close economic relations with the 27 EU countries in exchange for accepting the bloc’s rules and depositing them in its coffers.

The UK government said: ‘Brexit means we will never again have to accept a relationship with Europe which would see a return to freedom of movement, unnecessary payments to the European Union or jeopardize the full benefit trade deals that we are now able to make around the world.”

But despite the denials, the new Conservative government led by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak wants to restore relations with the EU, acknowledging that Brexit has an economic cost for Britain. Treasury chief Jeremy Hunt last week expressed optimism that trade barriers between the UK and EU will come down in years to come.

The change comes as public opposition grows to the hardline form of Brexit pursued by successive Tory governments since British voters chose by a margin of 52% to 48% to leave the bloc in a referendum in 2016.

Now, according to polling expert John Curtice, 57% of people would vote to join the bloc and 43% to stay out.

When the UK was negotiating its divorce from the EU, Conservative governments led by Prime Ministers Theresa May and her successor Boris Johnson ruled out staying inside the EU’s borderless single market or its customs union. without customs duties. Politicians who wanted closer ties were ignored or pushed aside.

The divorce settlement reached by the two parties in 2020 led to customs checks and other border obstacles for goods, as well as passport checks and other inconveniences for travelers. Britons can no longer live and work freely across Europe, and EU citizens cannot move to the UK as they please.

The UK government’s budget watchdog, the Office for Budget Responsibility, said last week that leaving the EU had had “a significant negative effect on UK trade”.

Yet it is only recently that members of government have begun to recognize the downsides of Brexit. Hunt, who last week announced a £55bn ($65bn) package of tax increases and spending cuts to support an economy battered by runaway inflation, acknowledged that Brexit had created “trade barriers” with the UK’s closest neighbours.

“Unfettered trade with our neighbors is very good for growth,” he told the BBC, and predicted the “vast majority” of barriers would be removed – even if it would take years.

Any attempt to rebuild ties with the EU will face opposition from the powerful eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party. Even the opposition Labor Party – reluctant to reopen a debate that has split the country in two and poisoned politics – says it will not seek to join the bloc, or even the EU single market, if it takes power after the next elections.

Sunak, who took office last month, is a longtime supporter of Brexit but also a pragmatist who has made fixing the economy his top priority. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has shaken European security and driven up energy prices, has put Brexit wrangling in perspective for politicians on both sides of the Channel.

Sunak wants to resolve a row with the EU over trade rules that has caused a political crisis in Northern Ireland, the only part of the UK that shares a border with an EU member country. When Britain left the bloc, both sides agreed to keep the Irish border free of customs posts and other checks, as an open border is a key pillar of the peace process that ended 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland.

Instead, some goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK are checked. It has angered pro-British Unionist politicians, who say the new controls are undermining Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. They boycott the power-sharing government in Belfast, leaving Northern Ireland without a functioning administration.

The British government is pinning its hopes on a deal being struck with the EU that would ease controls and entice Northern Ireland Unionists back into government.

Months of talks when Johnson was in office proved fruitless, but the mood has improved since Sunak took over, although there has been no breakthrough yet. ___

Follow AP’s Brexit coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/brexit and British politics at https://apnews.com/hub/british-politics

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