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Eastern Europe funds pass ballot box test

Projects on the environment and agriculture will benefit from the Swiss funds

(Keystone)

Swiss voters have approved a SFr1 billion ($800 million) payment to the ten new European Union member states and a unified minimum child allowance.

Final results from Sunday's nationwide vote show 53 per cent in favour of the EU funds. The unified child benefit proposal was supported by 68 per cent of voters.

The SFr1 billion is slated for a series of projects on the environment, infrastructure and education over the next ten years in a bid to close the gap between rich and poor regions.

The Swiss government pledged to contribute the sum during negotiations on a package of bilateral treaties with the EU in 2004.

It said Switzerland should contribute to a stable Europe from which it could benefit in many respects in return. Supporters said Switzerland's credibility on the international stage was at stake in the vote.

Parliament endorsed the decision, with three of the four main parties coming out in favour.

But the rightwing Swiss People's Party, which is known for its anti-EU stance, forced a nationwide referndum. It says the payment could prompt further financial demands and should be offset by cuts in development aid.

Switzerland is not a member of the EU, but the EU is its main trading partner. A series of bilateral accords has been concluded with the EU and efforts are underway to negotiate further agreements.

The SFr1 billion contribution is part of Switzerland's eastern Europe aid programme, which has been in place since the 1990s. Parliament has agreed to renew the law, which provides the legal basis for the payment.

Unified benefits

Voters have also given their support to a unified minimum child allowance that was agreed by parliament. A referendum on the issue was called by the business community with the backing of the People's Party and the centre-right Radical Party.

Under the proposal parents will receive a SFr200 monthly benefit per child and SFr250 per child aged over 16. Currently the sum varies from canton to canton.

Supporters say the move is a step towards more family-friendly policies and makes the current system more transparent.

Opponents argue the new scheme is too expensive and undermines the autonomy of the country's 26 cantons. Most of the extra costs, estimated at just under SFr600 million a year, would have to be paid by employers.

The vote marks the end of a 30-year effort to standardise benefits. Last year trade unions withdrew their proposal for a SFr450 monthly benefit, paving the way for a compromise in parliament.

swissinfo with agencies

Referendum

Laws which have been adopted by parliament can be challenged by the public in a referendum. For such a ballot to take place, at least 50,000 ...

In brief

This was the third nationwide ballot on EU integration since 2005. In that year voters approved a bilateral deal on security and asylum cooperation with Brussels and also came out in favour of extending the bilateral treaties to the ten new EU member states.

Switzerland is not a member of the EU, but it has concluded 16 bilateral accords, including on trade, labour, taxation, asylum, transport and research.

Moves are underway to negotiate a free-trade agreement between Switzerland and the EU, as well as a deal on electricity.

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Key facts

Since the 1990s Switzerland has spent SFr3.5 billion on some 1,000 projects in eastern Europe.
The proposed SFr1 billion payment is to go to the ten new EU member states, notably Poland and Hungary.

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