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Asylum poll and CIA jails mark political year

Swiss tax havens are a source of irritation for the EU

(Keystone)

European integration as well as Switzerland's laws on asylum and immigration were among the top political issues in nationwide ballots over the past year.

Senator Dick Marty, who investigated illegal CIA prisons in Europe, was one Swiss politician who was in the international spotlight in 2006.

The votes on tightening Swiss laws on asylum and further limiting immigration, particularly for people from outside the EU and the European Free Trade Association (Efta), were arguably among the most emotionally fraught subjects at the ballot box.

Centre-left political parties, churches, trade unions and aid organisations joined forces to oppose what they described as a break with Switzerland's humanitarian traditions.

They faced an alliance led by the rightwing Swiss People's Party who argued the restrictive rules were necessary to curb abuses.

The result on September 24 was a clear victory for the government and the right-of-centre parties represented in the cabinet with more than two thirds of voters endorsing the tougher rules.

Justice Minister Blocher, known for his hard-line stance, downplayed what many saw was a personal victory, while his antagonist, former Interior Minister Ruth Dreifuss warned against an inhumane application of the new laws.

Europe

Two months later the Swiss were again called to the polls to decide on a controversial SFr1 billion ($800 million) payment towards the ten new EU member states.

The government had pledged financial support to the countries mainly in eastern Europe as part of negotiations on a set of bilateral treaties with Brussels in 2004.

Once again the rightwing, led by the People's Party, grabbed the headlines in the run-up to the vote. But at the end of the day they lost their challenge. It was the third vote on European integration in 18 months and the third defeat for the party in one of their key policy issues.

But the People's Party is not likely to let up during 2007, a year set to be dominated by parliamentary and cabinet elections in October and December respectively. The party has already announced it will oppose any further Swiss payments to new EU states.

Existing and planned bilateral accords with the EU will be a foreign policy priority for a country that has decided to stay out of the bloc until further notice.

It has become more difficult to be heard in Brussels, says Urs Bucher who heads the Swiss-EU integration office in Bern.

"But we attach more importance to differences of opinion than the EU does," Bucher told the Swiss news agency, ATS, in an indirect reference to a dispute over tax privileges.

Intrepid investigator

If there were a competition for "Swiss politician of the year" Senator Dick Marty would be among the favourites to win the title in 2006.

He accused more than a dozen European countries of colluding with the United States to set up secret CIA prisons and transfers of suspected terrorists.

In his report for the human rights watchdog, the Council of Europe, Marty also criticised the Swiss authorities of turning a blind eye to suspect United States aircraft transiting through Swiss airspace and of ignoring an international arrest warrant.

Following the publication of the report in June Marty said he was convinced that the full truth had not yet come to light. He also criticised the council for hindering him in his investigation.

swissinfo, Urs Geiser

In brief

The votes on tougher asylum rules and limiting immigration for citizens from outside the EU were among six nationwide votes in Switzerland in 2006.

As of next January 1 asylum seekers will have to present valid identity papers within 48 hours of entering Switzerland. Other measures will come into force at a later stage.

Switzerland is not a member of the EU but has concluded 16 bilateral treaties with Brussels. The government this year decided to continue the bilateral approach and downgraded full EU membership to a long-term option.

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Key facts

Foreigners make up 20.3% of the residents in Switzerland (2005).
About 46% of them are affected by the immigration rules because they come from countries outside the EU and Efta.
More than 71,871 people applied for asylum in Switzerland in 2005, 23,678 were given refugee status, 24,453 were admitted on a temporary basis, 23,740 were rejected.

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