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Swiss observe EU enlargement from the sidelines

Flying the flags: the new members signed accession treaties in the shadow of Athens' Parthenon

(Keystone)

Switzerland sat on the sidelines when Europe took a step closer toward political and economic integration on Wednesday.

The Swiss president, Pascal Couchepin, arrived in Athens as ten countries signed a European Union accession treaty.

Couchepin is in the Greek capital for a two-day EU-organised conference to discuss European issues.

In a speech he warmly welcomed the new member states and the EU's "spirit of openness".

Couchepin also talked about the importance to Switzerland of good relations with the EU: "Switzerland is not an island, but a friend and a relaible partner."

While the EU prepares for enlargement, political opinion in Switzerland is divided as to how far Bern should be expected to contribute financially for access to an expanded "internal" EU market.

There has been speculation that Switzerland could face a bill of hundreds of millions of francs.

Paying for the privilege?

The Radical Party president, Christine Langenberger, recently said Switzerland should not be expected to help foot the bill, as it is not a member of the EU.

But Social Democrat parliamentarian, Andreas Gross, believes the country should be prepared to pay its way.

"It's not financing EU enlargement - it's contributing to the costs of an enlarged market - one from which the Swiss economy would benefit," he told swissinfo.

"The Swiss have to learn to stop profiting without paying.

"Switzerland has gained enormously from the last 50 years of [European] peace and economic development, and it's perfectly all right for the EU to ask for a contribution."

The size of the EU will increase from almost 377 million people to over 450 million if all ten of the new member states join in May next year.

Business scepticism

Brussels has not yet officially asked Switzerland for a contribution to the EU's enlargement process, but Gregor Kündig of the Swiss business federation, economiesuisse, remains sceptical as to whether such a request would be justified.

"We are basically not in favour of Switzerland being asked to make a contribution," he told swissinfo. "It would be unusual for a state to pay for access to the markets of other countries."

"Imagine in the World Trade Organisation if one country had to pay for access to the market of another - it would be a rather strange vision of world trade."

Kündig also questions how Switzerland - as a non-member - could be expected to contribute to EU funds over which it would have no control.

"We have already been actively providing financial support to these transition economies," he said. "It is not easy to say why we should channel funds now through the EU."

Opening up the labour market

Six of the bilateral agreements Switzerland signed with the existing members of the EU covering trade, transport and research will be extended to the new members when they join.

But the accord governing the free movement of people, which will lead to the gradual reciprocal opening up of the labour markets, will have to be negotiated with each of the ten new members individually.

Kündig is very much in favour of extending the free movement of people to the new EU members as soon as possible as he sees it as one of the cornerstones of the internal market.

"It's a chance for [Swiss] companies to find new qualified staff and they will also be able to send Swiss staff to these countries," he said.

"That is especially important for multinationals who have to be able to move personnel around easily."

Economic migrants

While economiesuisse and most of Switzerland's political parties would welcome the extension of the free movement of people accord, the rightwing Swiss People's Party could force a referendum.

It insists that Switzerland will become an attractive destination for people from eastern and central Europe in particular - and warns of a possible massive inflow of people from the new member states.

"We shall have to see what happens with the agreement with the existing EU members," Aliki Panayides of the People's Party told swissinfo.

"We need to have more information on what effects that agreement has had on people coming to Switzerland before we can start new negotiations [with the other countries]," she added.

"The other [Swiss] political parties don't seem to recognise that the Swiss people don't want more migration into the country.

"Switzerland is known as a rich country that attracts a lot of people and we cannot just open our frontiers to everybody."

"Unfounded" fears

But Gross dismisses the People's Party's claims that a large number of people will want to come to Switzerland as a result of the agreement on the free movement of people being extended.

He maintains those fears are both unfounded and an overestimation of the importance of Switzerland.

"These countries are joining the EU because they want to become part of the growth of the European economy," he said.

"If you look at the history of the EU - the level of migration has always been overestimated by those living in the wealthier countries and fearing a loss of their privileges.

"It has not happened."

swissinfo, Jonathan Summerton

EU summary

The ten candidate countries due to become full members of the European Union on May 1, 2004 are: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, Malta and Cyprus.
The first set of bilateral agreements between Switzerland and the EU - including the one governing free movement of people - came into force on June 1, 2002.
Switzerland is currently negotiating a second round of ten bilateral agreements including those covering asylum and migration.

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