Swiss see own debate on Europe reflected in Danish vote

Denmark's refusal to join the common European currency, the euro, highlights many similarities with the Swiss debate on European integration. Both nations are torn between the wish to be in Europe while keeping their own identities.

This content was published on September 29, 2000 minutes

On the same day Denmark voted against the euro in a referendum on Thursday, Swiss voters learned they will soon be called to the polls too to decide on European integration. In Switzerland's case the question is on whether to join the European Union (EU).

On Thursday, the senate threw out a compromise that would have allowed pressure groups campaigning for membership of Switzerland in the EU to withdraw their more radical proposal. This proposal will now have to be decided at the polls next year.

That the two votes took place on the same day was a coincidence. But it explains the interest that Swiss commentators and the press showed in the outcome of the Danish vote.

All major dailies were leading their Friday editions with the story, and many commented on the likely repercussions the decision might have in Switzerland.

"Der Bund" in Berne commented that the Danish decision, while being "more about symbols than fact", was confirming a "trend" that was apparent also as a result of the EU's eastward expansion. "Like with the euro and the Schengen agreement before, countries that want to integrate will find it easier to move ahead on a fast track in other areas too", the newspaper writes.

It said this flexibility was in Switzerland's interest, not only if the country eventually joined the EU, but also in the meantime. "An EU that is more flexible internally may be more pragmatic towards the 'near abroad'", "Der Bund" said.

In a comment on the senate vote, the "Tages-Anzeiger" in Zurich said that September 28, 2000 "will enter the annals of the history of the EU" mainly as the day the Danes rejected their government's euro policy. "But it should be noted at least in a footnote that it was the day when parliament in Switzerland disavowed its government's integration policy."

Without naming Switzerland but with the domestic debate in mind, the openly "europhile" daily "Le Temps" in Geneva commented that the Danish "no" vote reflected "deep doubts about the direction and necessity of the European project to which its architects should quickly find a response."

Prominent politicians and groupings participating in the debate about Swiss membership in the EU are interpreting the outcome of the Danish "no" vote in their favour.

Thomas Christen, general secretary of the New European Movement Switzerland, a pressure group that introduced the constitutional proposal to join the EU, says that anti-integration arguments are the same in Denmark and in Switzerland. "There is a popular fear of losing national independence", Christen says.

"But the Danish referendum shows that in actual fact, it is possible to be an EU member and still make autonomous decisions", he says.

But Switzerland's most prominent opponent of EU membership, Christoph Blocher of the People's Party, told swissinfo it was "wishful thinking" to conclude that the Danish "no" vote was a boost to integrationists.

"As a Swiss politician, I find the Danish result particularly interesting", Blocher said. Since the Crown, the Danish currency, was pegged to the euro, the question put before the Danish people was symbolic. "But they still voted 'no', which proves that the currency is a part of national identity", Blocher said.

There were other similarities, Blocher said. Being a small country, the Danes were sensitive to the domination of 'Brussels' and of larger EU member states. And while Danish politicians were for integration, "the people are against it".

"The Danish "no" vote has put a dampener on wishes that Switzerland join the EU", Blocher concludes.

Christen and Blocher agree that Switzerland, should it eventually want to join the EU, will not be able to afford the luxury of opting out of the euro zone, as Denmark and Britain have done.

"Losing the Swiss franc will be one of the biggest hurdles on the way of joining the EU", Christen says. But his pressure group will try to convince Swiss voters that "the euro has many advantages and is not just a price that has to be paid."

by Markus Haefliger

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