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Cuts to Swiss army voted through

The army will become smaller

(Keystone)

The Swiss have voted in favour of government proposals to reduce the size of the country's army and restructure its civil protection scheme.

The plans foresee the reduction in size of the armed forces by a third and the introduction of more professional training programmes.

Three-quarters of voters backed the army reforms, while 80 per cent came out in favour of overhauling the civil protection system.

"By accepting the reforms the Swiss people have authorised two important elements of the defence policy," the defence minister, Samuel Schmid, said at a press conference.

The two votes were the only two out of a total of nine to be accepted by the population and were in line with government recommendations.

Under the proposals, there would be a cut in the size of the army from 350,000 to 220,000 soldiers and a lowering of the age at which men would be required to do military service from 42 to 36 years.

But opponents of the move feared a smaller army would not be able to defend Switzerland adequately and insist that the reforms would damage the country's militia system

"The proposals don't simply go too far, they're wrong," rightwing Swiss People's Party parliamentarian, Ulrich Schlüer, told swissinfo earlier.

"They're based on a political world view and dreams of the 1990s, when the idea prevailed that wars between states would no longer happen," he added.

Defending the country

But centre-right parliamentarian Barbara Polla insisted a smaller Swiss army would be both more flexible and more able to respond to the needs of a changing world.

She said the army is simply too big and too expensive to meet Switzerland's current needs.

"The new proposals - Army XXI - take into account having soldiers when and where we need them and that means fewer soldiers but more flexibility and efficiency," she told swissinfo before the vote.

Polla says Swiss security and defence has to be based on the principle of cooperation with other states, and expanding reciprocal schemes such as one that allows Swiss soldiers to train in the Scandinavian countries.

Losing independence

Although the government has ruled out any moves towards joining Nato, Schlüer insists that closer international cooperation and Swiss membership of the Partnership for Peace programme in 1997 have already eroded some of the army's independence.

"We want a militia army which is purely for the defence of Switzerland," he said.

"We don't want an army which is working more closely with others internationally.

"The Partnership for Peace programme requires material cooperation - with member armies having more or less the same weapons supply, and the result has been that Switzerland's arms industry has suffered over the years."

Civil protection

The government also proposed a radical overhaul of Switzerland's civil protection system.

All Swiss men aged 20 to 50, who are not doing military service, are currently required to undertake civil protection - giving the country a "reserve force" of around 280,000 which can be called upon in times of conflict or emergency.

The proposals would reduce that number to 120,000 and lower the upper age limit to 40 under a new system coordinating the activities of the police, fire service, health service, utility services and civil protection in emergencies.

Polla says the changes shows that the government is taking into account the unlikelihood of Switzerland being involved in a war - especially with one of its neighbours.

She rejects opponents' claims that they would be irreversible should circumstances change in the future.

"If the (European) map alters considerably in the next five or ten years, then Switzerland will still be in a position to adapt and reform," she said.

All four of the major parties have supported the government's proposals - even the People's Party, which voted by a narrow majority to recommend a "yes" vote.

swissinfo, Jonathan Summerton

Key facts

The government wants to reduce the size of the army from 350,000 to around 220,000 soldiers.
It also proposes lowering the upper age for military service from 42 to 36 years.
International comparisons: Neighbouring Germany has an army numbering 300,000 soldiers, France 260,000 and Austria 35,000.
Switzerland spends around SFr4 billion ($3 billion) annually on its army.

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