Brexit debate returns with Sunak under pressure on immigrants

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LONDON – Prime Minister Rishi Sunak came under pressure on Monday to ease economic tensions with the European Union and let more skilled workers into Britain to address the country’s economic problems. 

Tony Danker, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), urged Mr Sunak to settle a dispute with the EU over trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in order to unlock more opportunities for trade and to ease immigration restrictions which are adding to the cost-of-living crisis.

“We’ve got an immigration system that’s far too nervous about bringing in the skills we need,” Mr Danker said in an interview with Bloomberg Television’s Lizzy Burden.

He argued that the shortage of workers is adding to the “stagflation” pressures in Britain’s economy. 

Mr Danker is due to appear alongside Mr Sunak at the CBI’s annual conference in Birmingham on Monday morning.

The prime minister’s team is seeking to head off a fresh dispute over Britain’s approach to trade with the EU.

No. 10 denied a report in the Sunday Times that Britain is considering pushing for a Swiss-style relationship with the EU, an idea that had angered Brexit hardliners. 

Former cabinet minister Simon Clarke said on Twitter that he hoped that wasn’t under consideration, and former UK Independence Party Leader Nigel Farage said “this level of betrayal will never be forgiven”.

Mr Danker said that the government should avoid opening up the broader debate over Brexit and focus on potential benefits from the existing deal, such as partnerships in science and mutual recognition of professional qualifications. Those initiatives are being held up by the dispute over Northern Ireland.

“Forget about the Swiss deal,” Mr Danker said. “We just want the Boris Johnson Brexit deal to be implemented and that’s not happening right now because of the Northern Ireland Protocol.”

Switzerland is a member of the European Free Trade Association, which, thanks to about 120 bilateral accords, participates in the single market for most goods.

But it also has to accept free movement of labour, EU market regulations and makes annual payments to the bloc’s budget – all of which are red lines to hardline Brexiteers on the right of Sunak’s Conservative Party.

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