The Swiss foreign minister, Joseph Deiss, has called for speedy integration with Europe. He said Switzerland's goal should be entry into the European Union, but that it should not try to begin negotiations too soon.
Speaking in Zurich on Monday, Deiss said it was important to create the conditions which would allow negotiations to be opened, and that full membership of the EU could only happen when the Swiss people were in favour.
"We must use the time until we enter the EU, to carry out necessary domestic political reforms," he said.
He said that the overwhelming vote by the Swiss people on May 21 in favour of a series of bilateral free trade accords with the EU, indicated that a wide-ranging debate on the question of European integration was necessary.
Deiss's comments come just one week before a session of parliament during which the assembly will debate a people's initiative calling on the government to start EU membership talks immediately.
However, Deiss rejected the "Yes to Europe" initiative, saying that those who wanted to make the discussion centre on the immediate opening of negotiations were losing sight of the real goal of EU entry.
"No one can say when the ideal time to open negotiations will be," he said. But he maintained that it would be unrealistic to to imagine they could start in the current legislative period, which ends in 2003.
The foreign minister said he realised he had irritated the "Yes to Europe" campaigners with his alternative proposals, but he defended himself by saying that all he was making were suggestions.
He reiterated that the goal should not be simply to open entry negotiations as soon as possible, but to become an EU member.
Deiss said that the time before joining the 15-state group should be used to carry out reforms, which he said needed to be made anyway, independently of the issue of EU membership. These included an increase in value added tax, which he said could be used to finance social insurance spending and would be offset by a reductioon in direct taxation.
Some issues, said Deiss, could only be resolved through hammering out bilateral agreements with the EU once entry had been sorted out. These include personal rights and security, visa questions and asylum issues.
In other areas, such as civil rights and federalism, he said it was neither necessary, nor possible to make sweeping changes which may be essential for full membership. But he said it was important to start defining and discussing these issues.
Deiss outlined three main themes for Switzerland's foreign policy in the immediate future. These were entry into the United Nations - which he said must be the priority, peace and development, and Europe.
The foreign minister's comments were given a cool reception by the president of the centre-right Christian Democratic Party, Adalbert Durrer. He said Deiss was aware that domestic conditions in Switzerland made EU membership impossible for the time being.
swissinfo with agencies