Switzerland, EU sign comprehensive cooperation accord

Switzerland and the European Union on Monday signed a comprehensive package of bilateral agreements that will likely move Switzerland much closer to the EU than ever before.

This content was published on June 21, 1999 minutes

Switzerland and the European Union on Monday signed a comprehensive package of bilateral agreements that will likely move Switzerland much closer to the EU than ever before.

Swiss Foreign Minister Joseph Deiss, pictured on the left, and Economics Minister Pascal Couchepin, right, signed the documents in Luxembourg, along with their EU counterparts. The ceremony formally marked the end of four years of negotiations and the start of the ratification process.

The accords cover economic and technological cooperation, public procurement, mutual acceptance of diplomas and licences, agricultural trade, aviation issues, road and rail traffic and the free movement of people.

The parliaments of all 15 EU member states will now have to ratify the accord on the free movement of people since the issue will affect national legislation.

The Swiss parliament will have to ratify the accords as one package and has therefore scheduled a special parliamentary session to debate the bilateral agreements in late August.

Deiss said in Luxembourg that Switzerland would try to reach a decision on ratification in October. But some political analysts in Switzerland say it is very likely that a referendum will be held.

A referendum can be secured by any Swiss voter who gathers 50,000 signatures in the 100 days after parliamentary approval.

The signing ceremony was a rather low-key affair since the Swiss government did not want to advertise the event and thus further fuel opposition to the agreements.

Some opposition groups in Switzerland have focussed on the controversial issue of transalpine road traffic, in particular the number of 40-tonne EU trucks that would be allowed to cross the Swiss Alps.

The Greens and environmental groups have expressed concern that Switzerland’s commitment to ecologically sound transport policies would be undermined by the accords.

A heated debate has also focused on the free movement of people, which would enable the Swiss to live and work in EU member states but which would give equal access to EU workers in Switzerland.

Left-leaning parties and trade organisations said that this would likely to put pressure on Swiss workers’ salaries and could lead to a drop in living standards.

The Swiss government estimates the cost of the agreements to Switzerland at some SFr 600 million ($390 million) a year but says the economic advantages from increased trade will be many times higher.

The government says the accords will maintain the competitiveness of Switzerland and its economy in relation to the EU single market, adding pointedly: "The government also wants to prevent the political, institutional and cultural isolation of the country."

The signing of the bilateral accords is a bid by neutral Switzerland's political class to get closer to the EU and its markets after the people in 1992 rejected membership of the European Economic Area which encompasses a large body of EU principles and legislation.

Deiss said after the signing ceremony that he would "reactivate" the debate on full membership of the EU once "the domestic political situation will be suitable for such a debate."

Sources: Reuters, sda-ats and dpa.

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