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Bilaterals still face uphill battle

Swiss People's Party president Ueli Maurer is opposed to the bilateral treaties Keystone

The Swiss government faces stiff opposition at home in its efforts to get a second set of bilateral agreements with the European Union onto the statute books.

This content was published on May 18, 2004 - 10:34

Opponents are threatening to call a nationwide vote, which would jeopardise Switzerland’s ability to meet an EU deadline on tax evasion.

The rightwing Swiss People’s Party is opposed to plans for security cooperation with Brussels.

Last week’s agreement on the nine bilateral accords by EU diplomats has prompted calls in Switzerland for voters to decide at the ballot box.

The Swiss foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, said she recognised that the Swiss people would have the last word on the treaties.

“We are very conscious of this [referendum] problem. The referendum is a weapon – or perhaps I should rephrase that and say an instrument – in the hands of the Swiss people who want to achieve certain objectives,” she told swissinfo.

Difficult to explain

Calmy-Rey said she had found it difficult to explain to her EU counterparts that ratification of the bilateral accords would take time.

“I always have to explain the Swiss referendum process to my EU colleagues and I have to tell them that there is nothing I can do about it,” she said.

“But I will do my utmost to ensure that the cabinet pushes for the right result, and I am sure that we will succeed.”

The accords, seen as an alternative to EU membership, govern issues such as cooperation on cross-border crime and asylum, as well as the taxation of EU residents’ savings.

Most constitutional lawyers and political analysts agree that the government is not obliged to put the agreements to a vote, but parliament may take a different view in its autumn session.

“If parliament insists the agreements be put to the electorate in the form of a compulsory referendum it would be hard for the government to win,” political analyst René Schwok told swissinfo.

Slim chances

Calmy-Rey admitted the chances of winning a compulsory referendum were slim, because the government would have to secure a majority of the popular vote as well as the backing of half of Switzerland’s 26 cantons.

“I am not in favour of such a referendum because we would need a double majority and this would certainly not work to our advantage,” she said.

A sceptical parliament or a nationwide vote would almost certainly delay implementation of the accords – especially the one dealing with the taxation of EU residents’ savings, which Brussels wants in place by January 1, 2005.

Rightwing groups and Switzerland’s business community want separate polls on each of the treaties.

The right and far-right parties say the accords are a sell-out, notably an agreement on closer cooperation with Brussels on police matters and the scrapping of border checks (Schengen and Dublin).

The business community, for its part, fears that if Switzerland fails to implement the treaties according to the EU deadline, Brussels may withdraw its concessions guaranteeing Swiss banking secrecy.

Brussels summit

When it comes to winning parliamentary and electoral support for the bilaterals, the government has to decide whether the agreements are treated as a single package or individually.

The Swiss president, Joseph Deiss, said the government would make up its mind after Wednesday’s scheduled summit with senior EU representatives.

Deiss will travel to Brussels with two other cabinet ministers to sign a document wrapping up two years of negotiations on the second batch of bilateral treaties.

Schwok says Brussels is likely to insist on the package deal and he doubts whether the government would be willing to put the accords individually before parliament or the electorate.

“It would be paradoxical for the government to turn around now and maintain that each of the agreements be dealt with individually, especially after insisting on a package deal during the negotiations,” he said.

Opposition

Even if both the government and parliament decide against holding a compulsory nationwide ballot, Switzerland’s rightwing is still likely to force a vote.

With just 50,000 signatures needed to call a referendum all, or just one, of the agreements could go to the ballot box as early as February 2005.

The isolationist group, Campaign for an Independent and Neutral Switzerland (CINS), has reiterated that it would force a nationwide vote on planned security cooperation between Switzerland and the EU.

It says the Schengen agreement is “an attack on Switzerland’s independence and sovereignty”, and is tantamount to “EU membership through the backdoor”.

CINS has the backing of the Swiss justice minister, Christoph Blocher, who was a founding member in 1986 and was its leader until the end of last year.

The People’s Party, of which he is a member, is the biggest group in parliament and is widely expected to join CINS in its opposition.

Three small far-right parties have already announced they would collect signatures to challenge the treaties.

They forced a nationwide vote on the first set of bilaterals, but failed to convince voters who approved the accords in May 2000.

swissinfo

Key facts

In 1992 Swiss voters rejected the European Economic Area Treaty, a halfway house to full EU membership.
In 2000 voters approved a first series of bilateral accords on trade and labour issues, including access to the labour market, transport, agriculture and research.
The accords only came into force in June 2002 as several EU member states delayed ratification.
Talks on a new set of nine bilateral treaties began in June 2002. They include accords on police cooperation, taxation of savings, and customs fraud.
Parliament is likely to debate the treaties in the autumn, but it is not clear whether a nationwide vote can take place before the beginning of next year.
In 1992 the government applied for EU membership, but the request has never been followed up.

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In brief

EU diplomats last week agreed on a second set of bilateral treaties with Switzerland focusing on banking secrecy and closer security and asylum cooperation (Schengen/Dublin).

Rightwing groups have vowed to challenge the Schengen accord in a nationwide vote.

On Wednesday the Swiss government is scheduled to meet members of the EU commission and the EU presidency in Brussels to sign the document.

The Swiss government and parliament have to decide on a possible nationwide vote on the package of bilateral accords or individual treaties.

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