The Swiss cabinet says parliament should decide whether the initiative "Yes to Europe" should be put to a nationwide vote. The proposal demands that Switzerland begin immediate talks on joining the European Union.
At its weekly meeting, the seven-member cabinet said it was sticking to its 18-month old counter-proposal to the initiative, which underlines the government's long-term aim of Switzerland joining the EU, but rejects any attempt to force it into bringing forward its timetable.
The cabinet showed a united front on Wednesday. It is considered to be generally pro-European, but with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
Earlier this week, the foreign minister, Joseph Deiss, had hinted that he favoured speeding up the membership process in a speech to a pro-European audience at Zurich University. But after Wednesday's meeting, he appeared to be towing the cabinet line.
"The cabinet decided not to change the original counter-proposal," he said. "This would only lead to numerous other interpretations."
The economics minister, Pascal Couchepin, said he was pleased with the cabinet's decision because it would reassure the electorate that the May 21 vote on closer bilateral ties with Europe was not a prelude to EU membership. That referendum saw voters approve a series of accords with the EU.
Political commentators say the Swiss cabinet has to walk a tightrope between the electorate, which is largely seen as lukewarm to the idea of EU membership, and Brussels.
The government does not want to be considered anti-European. By reiterating the counter-proposal to the initiative, it is sending a sign that it wants Switzerland to join the EU, but when it thinks the time is right.
The cabinet had also been under pressure after a parliamentary committee came out in favour of the "yes to Europe" initiative. Parliament is now expected to decide on June 22 whether or not the initiative will be put to a nationwide vote.
by Jonathan Summerton