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Overseas engagement to dominate Swiss political agenda in 2001

A year after Swiss voters approved a series of bilateral treaties with the EU, closer ties with bloc continue to dominate the political agenda.

(Keystone / Laurent Gilieron)

European integration, United Nations membership, the army and the old age pension scheme are among the issues likely to make the news headlines in Switzerland in 2001.

A year after Swiss voters approved a series of bilateral treaties with the European Union, closer ties with 15-nation bloc continue to dominate the political agenda.

In March, the electorate is to decide on a proposal to open immediate negotiations on full EU membership, but analysts expect voters to come out against it.

According to the latest survey, the Swiss people seem to be split down the middle over whether to initiate fast-track EU membership talks. The poll for Swiss television showed that 50 per cent of the population accepted the "Yes to Europe" initiative, while 47 per cent rejected it.

Meanwhile, Bern and Brussels are preparing for further talks on extending the bilateral accords to tax and asylum issues as well as the fight against cross-border crime.

Switzerland's army and its commitment to international cooperation will also be in the spotlight. Voters will have the final say on plans to arm Swiss troops taking part in international missions abroad. Conservative parties and pacifist groups are opposed to the plan.

Parliament is likely to begin a debate about reforms in the army. A draft law foresees a drastic reduction in the number of militia soldiers, but the annual budget is expected to remain at around SFr4 billion ($2.6 billion).

United Nations membership is one of the government's priorities. It wants to convince the electorate ahead of a nationwide vote in 2002 that Switzerland should no longer remain outside the world body.

Among the domestic issues likely to make the headlines in 2001 are the excess gold reserves of the National Bank, the old age pension scheme and the policy towards foreigners.

The government is due to present proposals aimed at easing the citizenship procedure. But these are likely to prove controversial since an estimated 600,000 of Switzerland's 1.5 million foreigners fulfil the criteria to become Swiss citizens.

A political debate is underway on how to finance the pension scheme in the future. One proposal recommends using some of the proceeds from the sale of excess gold reserves. Another suggests raising the retirement age for men and women to 67.

A public debate is also likely to gather pace on the planned national exhibition on the shores of Lakes Neuchâtel, Biel and Murten in 2002. Expo.02 was originally due to open in 2001, but it has been dogged by a series of financial and personnel difficulties.

The organisers are faced with a shortage of sponsoring money and have had to adapt their plans several times.

by Urs Geiser


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