Switzerland to sign key accord on closer ties with European Union

A low-key signing ceremony in Luxembourg on Monday will seal agreements aimed at giving Switzerland its closest ties yet to the European Union.

This content was published on June 17, 1999

A low-key signing ceremony in Luxembourg on Monday will seal agreements aimed at giving Switzerland its closest ties yet to the European Union.

Switzerland, which prides itself on its neutrality and is not a member of the European Union, the United Nations or NATO, will sign a number of accords.

Those 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.

Also included are such controversial issues as the number of 40-tonne trucks that can use Switzerland's Alpine roads, as well as lower import duties on Dutch and French cheeses.

The Swiss government estimates the cost from the agreements 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 a bloc encompassing a large body of EU principles and legislation.

Voters in 1992 comprehensively threw out the entry into the European Economic Area that the government had negotiated -- and which it saw as a tentative stepping stone towards EU membership and away from splendid isolation.

Monday's signing is not the end of the road for the agreements.

First, the Swiss parliament has a say in the accords as well as a number of associated internal Swiss measures. It cannot change the agreements and must pass or reject them as a package.

The procedure is expected to be completed by October 8 -- in time for the October 24 parliamentary election.

While the package of seven agreements stands a good chance of obtaining parliamentary approval, there could be some debate about the accompanying measures in favour of particular interest groups, especially in the run-up to the election.

Some parliamentary and lobby groups are already conducting advertising campaigns, so far mainly in favour.

The package of agreements is subject to an optional referendum, which can be secured by any voter who gathers 50,000 signatures in the 100 days after parliamentary approval.

If such a referendum took place, in March or April 2000, a simple majority of 50.1 percent would suffice to swing the decision either way. If it gets approval, the Swiss government can tell the EU it is ready to ratify the agreements.

Reuters news agency contributed to this report.

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