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Small businesses doubtful about bilateral benefits

Most of Switzerland's big businesses and major employers support the bilateral agreements with the European Union. They say the relaxation in trade barriers will be good for business. But, among small Swiss businesses, there is scepticism.

Lanit AG is a small chemical firm, specialising in the production of paint and paint removers. The manager, Benno Huber, is proud of the family business: it was founded in 1931 by his father, and now Huber runs the company, together with his son.

Lanit employs 14 full-time members of staff; the company's clients are Swiss painting and decorating firms. "We supply paint and above all paint remover to customers all over the country," says Huber. "We are a very successful small Swiss business, but I don't think we could compete with bigger suppliers from the European Union."

Huber is president of the Swiss Association of Small Businesses against the bilateral agreements. He is worried that a relaxation of trade barriers will allow big German chemical firms to enter the Swiss market, and offer products similar to Lanit's, but cheaper.

"The bilateral agreements wouldn't change things overnight for us", he says. "It would be a slow process towards impoverishment. If some of our customers left us to buy cheaper products, gradually we would lose profits, and in the end perhaps we would have to cut back on salaries or staff."

Huber is tireless in his opposition to the bilateral agreements; his office is cluttered with anti-EU leaflets and posters, and in the last few weeks he has been up and down the country making speeches urging voters to reject the agreements. And he's not concerned that a no to the bilaterals will make his country isolated in Europe.

"Switzerland is a very successful country," he says, "we have a high standard of living and very low unemployment. And we achieved this success on our own, without any help from the EU, we don't need Brussels. In fact, Brussels needs us, after America we are the EU's biggest customer. A wise businessman doesn't punish his best customer."

But Huber doesn't have the full support of his staff in his opposition to the EU. Lanit's chief chemist, Walter Müller, accepts the bilaterals may cause one or two business problems, but still, he will be voting in favour.

"It's true we may have a problem with our paint" he concedes. "The German chemical companies are very big, and can probably produce more cheaply than us. But our main product is paint remover, and I think we will hang on to our market share of that."

Above all, Müller is concerned about Switzerland's isolation if the bilaterals are rejected. "We are a small country", he says, "and we can't continue for the next 20 or 30 years in this position outside Europe. I don't think isolation is right for Switzerland, and if we say no to the bilaterals I think it could be a very angry isolation."

But Huber, unsurprisingly, doesn't agree. As he gathers together his papers and prepares to set off for another anti-bilaterals meeting, it becomes clear that his opposition is about more than a mistrust of Brussels. Huber has lost faith in his own government too.

"The Swiss government seems to have no idea about market economy," he says, "and we small business leaders do. We' re on the cutting edge and we know what will be good for our businesses. Recently the government has advised the Swiss voters badly about a number of things: the constitution, taxes, heavy goods vehicles and so on. Each time we have opposed the government, and unfortunately we have lost. But not this time, not with the bilaterals. This time we are going to win."

Opinion polls, though, do not support Huber's optimism that the agreements will be rejected. So far it looks as if a majority of voters will support closer ties with Brussels. For Lanit's chemist, Walter Müller, it's a simple question of looking to the future.

"I won't be voting yes because I think I will benefit tomorrow," he says. "I will be doing it for the future, for my children. In the long term it is essential that we move closer to Europe."

by Imogen Foulkes

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