The government says Swiss membership of the United Nations is necessary. Launching a new effort to speed up the process, the foreign minister, Joseph Deiss, said membership would make it easier for Switzerland to defend its interests worldwide.
Deiss said the goals of the UN were the same as those of Switzerland's foreign policy, and that membership would have no impact on Switzerland's centuries-old neutrality. "Neutrality is not a hindrance for Switzerland to join the UN. On the contrary: it is very good reason to do so," he said.
The foreign minister added that the estimated additional cost of UN membership would amount to SFr50-60 million per year. That is an increase of about 10 per cent.
In a bid to anticipate opposition, notably by right-wing parties, the foreign minister also pointed out that UN membership did not mean that Swiss troops would automatically have to take part in international peacekeeping missions.
"If you consider for instance the current UN involvement in the Balkans, not everyone of the current 188 UN member states is contributing to peace keeping troops," he said.
Deiss expressed confidence that voters would back what he described as the government's top policy aim for the next three years. He said the world and Switzerland had undergone considerable changes since Swiss voters rejected full UN membership in a referendum in 1986.
Deiss pointed out that international politics were no longer dominated by the antagonism between Communism and the West. He said Swiss voters had also had time to get used to a more open world.
The foreign minister made the statements on Thursday at the start of a wide-ranging process of consultation on the issue with all parties concerned. From now until the beginning of October, the government will canvas the opinions of the cantons, political parties, businesses and other organisations.
A powerful conservate group, the Campaign for an Independent and Neutral Switzerland, immediately vowed to fight efforts to join the UN.
In a statement, the organisation said it "would do whatever it can to prevent Switzerland becoming a puppet of the power politics of the UN security council."
It said Europe at least needed a credible country which had strictly no part in international conflicts and could provide genuinely independent humanitarian assistance.
Supporters of UN membership have already collected enough signatures to force a nationwide referendum on the issue. It is expected that voters will have a final say on the matter in 2002.
Switzerland has had observer status with the UN, and hosts the second most important headquarters of the organisation in the city of Geneva. But it is one of the last sovereign states not to be a full member of the organisation alongside the Vatican.
by Urs Geiser