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The long road towards the bilateral accords with the EU

On Sunday, the Swiss go to the polls to vote on a series of bilateral agreements which will bring Switzerland closer to the European Union. The agreements are the result of long and difficult negotiations between Berne and Brussels.

The long road towards Sunday's vote began almost eight years ago, when Swiss voters, rejecting government advice, said no to joining the European Economic Area. The vote left Switzerland out in the cold, particularly when several EEA members joined the EU, and established the world's second largest trading power.

The Swiss government and business leaders, worried about Swiss isolation, were keen to start bilateral talks with the EU right away, but officials in Brussels, perhaps irritated at Switzerland's rejection, were not ready to get round the negotiating table until 1994.

Then the difficulties really began.

Swiss hopes that a deal could be concluded within a year proved to be wildly over-optimistic. Instead the negotiations dragged on for 5 years, during which every detail of every agreement was haggled over, such as whether the tiny Swiss village of Champagne could still call its wine by that name. French pressure forced the Swiss to back down on that issue.

Diplomats also haggled over exactly how much a 40 tonne truck should be charged for crossing Swiss territory.

The issue of heavy goods vehicles was perhaps the most difficult of all: no sooner had an exhausted and unshaven Swiss transport minister staggered out of an all night meeting in Brussels saying he had finally got an agreement, than an EU negotiator - usually German or Italian - popped up to say things were not quite as simple as that.

Meanwhile on the domestic front the Swiss negotiators had to tread carefully in order not to alienate the local anti European lobby.

The free movement of people was also the subject of intense negotiations, with the Swiss determined to convince voters that the agreement would not simply open Switzerland's borders to EU workers overnight.

Finally, negotiations were concluded, and on Sunday the agreements must face one final hurdle, the approval of the people in a nationwide vote.

The Swiss electorate will be asked to approve a series of seven bilateral accords, governing transport, trade, research, aviation, agriculture, free movement of people, and public procurement. All seven will have to be approved, or none at all.

Officials in Brussels expect a yes vote, so too does the Swiss government. But, in the best tradition of Swiss direct democracy, the final word lies with the people.

by Imogen Foulkes

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