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Swiss swayed by merits of EU funds

Workers in Slovakia, one of the ten countries that will receive Swiss aid

(Keystone)

Sunday's "yes" vote to a SFr1 billion ($800 million) Swiss contribution to the ten new members of the European Union reveals more pragmatism than real enthusiasm.

While rightwing opponents were licking their wounds over another failure on an EU issue, those in favour of helping mainly eastern European countries over the next ten years said voters had recognised the advantages of the deal.

Voters accepted the contribution in a referendum with a 53 per cent majority, with 14 cantons voting in favour and nine against.

Despite the narrowness of the margin, Euro-MP Diana Wallis - who chairs the committee for relations with Switzerland - told swissinfo she saw it as a "positive result".

The president of the centre-left Social Democrats, Hans-Jürg Fehr, said the result would strengthen the position of non-EU member Switzerland in future discussions with Brussels, notably on agriculture and electricity.

He added this was another defeat for those who wanted to cut off Switzerland from Europe.

He was referring to the rightwing Swiss People's Party, the Campaign for an Independent and Neutral Switzerland and the far-right Swiss Democrats who had called a referendum on the issue.

Snub

The Swiss Trade Union Federation commented that voters had clearly snubbed the isolationist and national rightwing on an important question of European policy.

The centre-right Radicals and centre-right Christian Democrats also welcomed the vote, as did the Swiss Business Federation (economiesuisse) and the Swiss Employers' Association, which have pointed to future business advantages for the country.

The People's Party was disappointed at the result but was pleased that it had mobilised 47 per cent of voters practically on its own.

"When everyone wants to wants to give money away and no one defends it, it is difficult to combat this," commented party president Ueli Maurer.

Own interest

In Brussels, the European Commission welcomed the "yes" vote. Its president, José Manuel Barroso of Portugal described the result as "in Switzerland's own interest".

The EC added that bilateral relations between Switzerland and the EU could now be strengthened.

Euro-MP Wallis said it was "really good" that the Swiss had managed to come up with three positive results in its relations with the EU [since 2005].

"It's also quite some achievement, frankly. I don't know how many countries would be able to come up with a positive vote that relates to giving money to other people elsewhere."

Asked whether Switzerland now had a moral obligation to make a contribution to Romania and Bulgaria – set to join the EU in January – Wallis was cautious.

EU bilateral accords

Switzerland and the European Union have concluded two sets of bilateral accords following voters' rejection in 1992 of the European Economic Area ...

Wait and see

"Logically we would think so. There will of course be discussion on that point," she commented.

Political scientist Karin Gilland Lutz from Zurich University said there was some truth to arguments that the Swiss were looking after their own interests as well as trying to help the ten EU member countries.

"To argue, as the government and certain other actors did, that this money to be spent is in Switzerland's own interest is perhaps to a lot of people far-fetched - in the sense that they don't see really how that is going to benefit them.

"But I think 'yes' voters were also motivated in the sense of giving aid," she told swissinfo.

Lutz said rejection of the contribution would not have meant the end of the two sets of bilateral agreements reached between Bern and Brussels.

"Nevertheless it would of course have cost Switzerland a lot of good will in terms of future negotiations.

"There are dossiers being prepared for future possible bilateral agreements and also implementation of agreements that have already been made and these could have been delayed as an expression of frustration with Switzerland."

swissinfo, Robert Brookes

Key facts

Since the 1990s Switzerland has spent SFr3.5 billion on some 1,000 projects in eastern Europe.
The proposed SFr1 billion payment is to go to the ten new EU member states, notably Poland and Hungary.

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In brief

This was the third nationwide ballot on EU integration since 2005. In that year voters approved a bilateral deal on security and asylum cooperation with Brussels and also came out in favour of extending the bilateral treaties to the ten new EU member states.

Switzerland is not a member of the EU, but it has concluded 16 bilateral accords, including on trade, labour, taxation, asylum, transport and research.

Moves are underway to negotiate a free-trade agreement between Switzerland and the EU, as well as a deal on electricity.

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Eastern Europe Cooperation Act

The Swiss government says the contribution to support eastern Europe is vital for the success of the bilateral route taken by Switzerland with the EU and for the protection of Swiss interests in relations with Brussels.

It says Switzerland benefits economically from the development of growth markets in eastern Europe and politically from the continent's greater security and stability.

It has repeated that the financing of the SFr1 billion over ten years is budget neutral. That means it does not result in additional debts for the country nor is it an additional burden on the taxpayer.

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