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Swiss turn down "fast track" EU membership negotiations

(swissinfo.ch)

The Swiss have overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to start immediate negotiations on joining the European Union. Nearly 77 per cent of the population voted against the proposal, according to final results on Sunday.

A large majority in German-Swiss parts of the country voted against, with many cantons recording a "no" vote of between 80 and 90 per cent.

But the trend against the proposal was also evident in French-speaking parts of the country which are generally more pro-European. Over 55 per cent in canton Jura rejected it, while 58 per cent of the voters in canton Geneva, which has a high percentage of international workers, also rejected the proposal.

The government, whose medium-term goal is EU membership, played down the impact of the vote.

Cabinet ministers said the result was not a "no" to negotiations at a later stage; it was merely a rejection of starting negotiations immediately.

The cabinet has already made it clear it wants to begin negotiations in 2004. A cabinet statement said the government would decide whether and when it was in Swiss interests to begin the negotiations.

The European Commission said the Swiss people's "no" on Sunday showed only that they wanted the issue of EU membership discussed at a later stage.

The turnout was 54 per cent - relatively high by Swiss standards.

Members of the "New European Movement Switzerland", which launched the initiative, had been hoping for up to 40 per cent support. The fact that it was much lower could send a signal to the government that any early step towards the EU is likely to meet strong grassroots resistance, analysts say.

Stefan Läubli of the "New European Movement Switzerland" told swissinfo he was disappointed by the low "yes" vote, but said the initiative had prompted much-needed discussion about Switzerland and the EU.

The group maintained "fast-track" negotiations with the EU would be in Switzerland's best interests. They wanted Switzerland to join the EU as soon as possible so it could play a part in building the 15-member bloc's future.

However, parliament, the government and many industry leaders were against the initiative, saying such a step would be premature.

The main argument against the initiative was that Swiss people need more time to get used to a series of bilateral accords with the EU, covering mainly trade issues, which were approved in a nationwide vote last May.

There is still a strong residue of anti-European feeling in Switzerland, particularly in German-speaking regions, and among supporters of the right-wing Swiss People's Party, one of the four parties in government.

Analysts say the government was clearly relieved that the bilateral accords were endorsed in a referendum last year, but recognise that "premature" negotiations on full EU membership would currently stand little chance of success at the ballot box.

The government made a formal request for EU 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.

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