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Cabinet debates EU membership timetable

The cabinet is discussing Switzerland's relationship with the European Union.

The long term aim of the entire government is EU membership. Less certain is the timetable for restarting negotiations which have been on hold since 1992 when Swiss voters rejected membership of the European Economic Area.

The issue has been in the news all week with two ministers publicly stating their position ahead of the cabinet meeting.

On Monday, the foreign minister, Joseph Deiss, said he did not want a "pause for thought" on the question of EU membership. He said even if the negotiations were not launched until after the next elections in 2003, a debate needed to begin now to convince the people and the cantons.

Meanwhile, the economics minister, Pascal Couchepin, said on Tuesday: "I have never been in favour of a pause for thought. It's impossible and not useful. You must never stop thinking. But I am convinced that the Swiss people want to wait a while before they take another step towards European integration."

"As you could see after the vote [on the bilateral free trade agreements with the European Union on May 21], opinion polls showed that most Swiss people are sceptical about our future relations with the EU," Couchepin said.

The minister refused to be drawn on when he would like to see negotiations on EU membership started. He said it was "not possible, or desirable" to lay down a date.

"There are some important reforms to be carried out - the reform of the fiscal system and of agriculture, for example," Couchepin said. "All this will take time, and if you push the people too hard in a direct democracy, they will react immediately."

"The wise way of doing things is not to pressure people, and to do things in a democratic way - and that takes time," Couchepin said.

Following Deiss's speech, some Swiss commentators said that this was proof of a split in the cabinet: Deiss representing those ministers who wanted to strike while the iron was hot and capitalise on the overwhelming popular support for the bilaterals; Couchepin wanting to follow a more pragmatic line.

Other analysts said Deiss's speech was more likely an attempt to scupper a people's initiative calling for talks on EU membership to start immediately.

In his speech, the foreign minister said he wanted to see the "Yes to Europe" initiative, which parliament will debate in its forthcoming session, withdrawn. He said the goal should not be simply to open entry negotiations as soon as possible, but to become an EU member, and rejection of the initiative in a popular vote could jeopardise that.

"No one can say when the ideal time to open negotiations will be," Deiss said in Zurich. But he maintained that it would be unrealistic to imagine they could start in the current legislative period, which ends in 2003.




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