Swiss voters are going to the polls this weekend to decide on a proposal which calls for immediate talks on membership of the European Union. Latest opinion polls suggest the measure will be rejected.
Supporters of the initiative, known as "Yes to Europe", say it is important for Switzerland to push ahead with EU integration as quickly as possible.
Parliament, the government and many industry leaders, however, have come out against the initiative, saying such a step is premature. The government, which sees EU membership as a longer-term goal, does not want to start negotiations before 2004.
Supporters of fast-track negotiations say the time is ripe for an open and fair debate on EU membership. They say it would be in Switzerland's interest to join as soon as possible and help build the future of the EU.
The group behind the initiative, the New European Movement Switzerland, also says that Switzerland would be in effect be forced to adopt EU regulations if the country does not join the 15-member bloc soon.
Marc Suter, a member of the House of Representatives and president of the New European Movement, says: "Switzerland is a European country in any sense, and it is in the middle of Europe. It should be able to help take decisions. Otherwise Switzerland is just second class."
Suter also says that a debate is necessary now and that once the negotiations have been concluded, voters would still have the final say on EU membership.
Opponents reject the idea of immediate negotiations, and maintain the Swiss people need more time to get used to the bilateral accords with the EU, covering mainly trade issues, which were approved in a nationwide vote last May
"We can best achieve the long-term goal of joining the EU if we let more time pass. People need more time to see what impact the bilateral treaties have on Switzerland", says Vreni Spoerry, a member of the Senate.
The opponents also say it should be up to the government to decide when to launch negotiations with EU.
The government made a formal request for membership 1992, but it was shelved after voters rejected the European Economic Area treaty - seen as a halfway house towards EU membership - in the same year.
Supporters have generally accepted that they will not win the latest ballot. But they are hoping for a 40 per cent "yes" vote - an honourable defeat which could increase pressure on the government and parliament to move more quickly towards full EU membership.
by Urs Geiser