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Swiss prepare for historic vote on bilateral accords with European Union

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The Swiss people are this weekend voting in a historic referendum, which could see Switzerland take a major step towards closer integration with the European Union.

Most opinion polls suggest the Swiss will vote by a clear majority in favour of the bilateral treaty with the EU, made up of seven accords covering such areas as transport, free movement of people, agriculture and research.

The President, Adolf Ogi, told swissinfo earlier this week he expected a 60-40 per cent majority in favour of the accords.

Opinion polls earlier this year predicted a wider margin of victory, but support has eased in recent weeks, as the opposition has become more vocal.

The cabinet, four government parties, parliament and big business have came out in support of the accords, which they see as vital to Switzerland's economic and political future.

Nonethless there is opposition. Opponents fear the accords are just a first step towards full EU membership, and claim they will sacrifice Switzerland's neutrality and independence.

There are also concerns in some quarters about the increase in heavy lorries transiting the country, which has united environmentalists and people living along the Basel to Gotthard motorway in opposing the accords.

Fears have also been expressed that the agreement on the free movement of people will lead to an influx in low-paid workers. In particular, people in the southern canton of Ticino, neighbouring Italy, have expressed their concern that more and cheaper labour from Lombardy will be used to the detriment of local workers in Ticino.

The right wing, which successfully undermined European integration efforts seven years ago, has been split by the issue.

The leadership of the main right-wing party, the Swiss People's Party, has come out with a qualified "yes" but many local branches, particularly in German-speaking central and eastern Switzerland, have defied the executive's recommendation and urged their members to vote "no".

The People's Party leading figure, Christoph Blocher, who in the past has railed successfully against any pro-European move, was booed by his erstwhile faithful supporters last weekend when he recommended an open vote to the 30,000-strong members of the Movement for a Neutral and Independent Switzerland.

The referendum was called by two right-wing parties, the Lega dei Ticinesi and the Swiss Democrats, as well as a host of tiny groups, who collected sufficient signatures to force a vote. Neither they, nor the rank-and-file of the People's Party, have managed to mount anything like the camapaign which humiliated the government over seven years ago.

The government suffered a narrow but crushing defeat on December 6, 1992, when a majority of the Swiss population - particularly supporters of Blocher - stymied an attempt by Switzerland to join the European Economic Area.

The government was caught napping as Blocher mounted a highly vocal and successful pre-vote campaign. Ministers made it clear earlier this year they were not going to lose the political high-ground in the campaign this time round.

Swiss ministers and parties will be carefully watching the size of the no-vote, as this may help determine how quickly the government presses ahead with its stated aim of full membership of the EU. Such a move is unlikely for seven to ten years, analysts say.

The bilateral accords took five painstaking years of negotiations before agreement was reached in 1998. The stumbling blocks ranged from the tax to be levied on European 40-tonne trucks crossing Switzerland, the free movement of labour - and what this would mean for labour costs - through to the more peripheral issues such as French objections to the village of Champagne in canton Vaud calling their sparkling wine "champagne".

The European Parliament ratified the accords a month ago sending a clear signal to the Swiss people and member states. If it is accepted in Sunday's referendum, the parliaments of all 15 EU member states will have to approve the treaty. If this happens, the treaty will come into effect next January.

by Ron Popper

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