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Swiss government and EU welcome historic vote for bilateral accords

The Swiss government and the Europeran Union have welcomed the result of Sunday's historic referendum in which Swiss voters clearly approved a series of bilateral accords with the EU. A total of 67.2 per cent voted in favour.

Government ministers welcomed the decision shortly after the results were known. The foreign minister, Joseph Deiss, described the outcome as an important step into the 21st century.

Deiss said full membership of the EU remained a long-tem government goal. But he said Sunday's voter approval of the bilateral accords did not amount to a mandate for further European integration.

The seven accords will dismantle almost all trade barriers between Switzerland and the EU, and allow for the free movement people.

The EU has also welcomed the result. The European Commission president, Romano Prodi, said he was pleased the accords had been approved by such a large majority.

"The agreements shall bring about a considerable strengthening of our relations, but in no way prejudge any steps towards further integration" said Prodi.

In the vote, there was a clear majority in French- and German-speaking cantons. Two cantons, Italian-speaking Ticino and Schwyz in central Switzerland, came out against the accords.

In the German-speaking part of the country, the cantons of Basel-city and Basel-country, close to the border with France and Germany, were notable for the size of the majority. A total of 72 and 71 per cent respectively voted in favour.

In Zurich and Berne, 70 and 68 per cent respectively came out in support of the accords. In other German-speaking cantons, the size of the majority varied between 55 and 66 per cent.

The highest "yes" votes were in French-speaking parts of Switzerland. The majority in canton Vaud was just over 80 per cent; the cantons of Neuchatel and Geneva voted by 79 and 78 per cent respectively in favour. The French cantons have traditionally been more pro-European than other parts of Switzerland.

The southern canton of Ticino rejected the accords by a margin of 57-43 per cent. The people of Ticino fear that the accord on the free movement of people will lead to an influx of cheap labour from the Italian region of Lombardy.

The central canton of Schwyz also voted against by a wafer-thin majority of less than half a per cent. Schwyz is one of the cantons which will experience increased heavy truck traffic as a result of the accord on transport.

Turn-out was 48 per cent. In the last vote on Europe - in 1992 when the elctorate narrowly rejected membership of the European Economic Area - voter turn-out was 79 per cent.

The seven accords, designed to increase Swiss access to EU markets and open up Swiss markets, cover transport, trade, aviation, research, agriculture, free movement of people and public procurement.

The referendum was called by small right-wing parties who felt the accords would compromise Swiss independence and neutrality, and would be a stepping stone towards full EU membership.

However, the government, all four parties in the cabinet, parliament and big business threw their support behind the accords, saying they were vital to Switzerland's economic and political future.

The accords, signed in 1999 after five years of painstaking negotiations, have already been approved by the Swiss parliament. They were last month ratified by the European Parliament in a clear signal to the Swiss people and the 15 EU member states whose parliaments also have to approve the agreement.

The accords are scheduled to take effect from next January, provided they are also approved by the parliaments of all EU member states.

swissinfo with agencies

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