Swiss parliament discusses bilateral accords with European Union

Swiss Economics Minister Pascal Couchepin (l) and Foreign Minister Joseph Deiss were among those attending Monday’s start of a four-day parliamentary discussion on whether to ratify the wide-ranging bilateral accords with the European Union.

This content was published on August 30, 1999 - 17:37

Swiss Economics Minister Pascal Couchepin (l) and Foreign Minister Joseph Deiss were among those attending Monday’s start of a four-day parliamentary discussion on whether to ratify the wide-ranging bilateral accords with the European Union.

The sensitive political and economic accords were signed in June but still have to be ratified by the Swiss parliament as well as the parliaments of all 15 EU member states.

The accords define economic and technological cooperation, public procurement, mutual acceptance of diplomas and licences, agricultural trade, aviation issues, road and rail traffic and the free movement of people.

“The overall results achieved in the accords must be considered as good for Switzerland and we must tell the people that this is so,” said one member of the centre-right Radical Party, which is represented in the cabinet.

However, that opinion was not shared by right-wing speakers, and the debate is expected to heat up in the coming days.

Political observers say it is likely that Swiss voters will face a referendum on the controversial accords.

Such a vote can be secured by any Swiss voter or group which gathers 50,000 signatures in the 100 days after parliamentary approval of the accords.

Those in favour of the accords – or even full EU membership – argue that Switzerland can no longer afford to stand outside Europe and must actively take part in the political bodies that shape Europe’s political and economic future.

Critics argue that opening up will lead to a loss of political sovereignty and a drop in living standards.

Some opposition groups, including the Greens and other environmentalists, have expressed concern that Switzerland’s commitment to ecologically sound transport policies will be undermined by the accords.

Greenpeace, the WWF and the environmentalist Alpine Initiative group they will force a national vote on the accords unless the government takes stricter measures to protect the environment.

Transport Minister Moritz Leuenberger has tried to calm those fears, saying the government could boost the SFr2.8 billion ($1.86 billion) earmarked in order to move freight haulage from road to rail. The groups have demanded subsidies to the tune of SFr3.3 billion ($2.2 billion).

The idea of free movement of people has also caused some concern among the Swiss since many fear that Switzerland will be flooded by cheap labour from abroad and that Swiss workers might suffer from salary dumping or even lose their jobs.

Trade unions have threatened to launch a referendum if the government does not take measures to protect Swiss workers from salary dumping and other perceived threats posed by opening up Switzerland’s labour market.

From staff and wire reports.

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