The Swiss foreign minister, Joseph Deiss, has signalled that Switzerland may delay opening talks on joining the European Union. His comments to the Senate come after Swiss voters rejected an immediate start to membership negotiations in a nationwide ballot last Sunday.
In what is being seen as a climb down in the face of mounting anti-EU sentiment, Deiss said on Wednesday that the government's timetable for starting negotiations might now be put back.
Until now the government's position has been that Switzerland will make a decision on whether to start negotiations by 2007. But during a debate in the Senate, Deiss said "The date is not a central element in further steps towards integration".
He admitted that the government was re-evaluating its position following voters' overwhelming rejection of an initiative calling for the immediate opening of membership negotiations with the EU.
Deiss said the vote had not been a defeat for the government because it had opposed the initiative, but added: "it is clear that the result did not help promote our long-term aim of joining the EU."
He said too that the government was not considering withdrawing Switzerland's request for membership, pointing out that this would send the wrong signal to Brussels ahead of talks on further bilateral agreements with the EU.
A series of seven bilateral accords, governing mainly trade issues, was approved by Swiss voters last May, but they have yet to take effect because of delays in the ratification process by individual EU member states.
Switzerland is seeking closer cooperation on security and asylum issues with the 15-member bloc. For its part, the EU wants Switzerland to crack down on customs fraud and tax evasion.
During Wednesday's parliamentary debate, Deiss also dismissed calls for his resignation by the right-wing Swiss People's Party, which said he should step down because his pro-Europe policy was completely at odds with public opinion.
"It's now that my job is getting really interesting", Deiss told reporters at the parliamentary session in Lugano.
by Urs Geiser