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EU Membership :
Switzerland's long-term objective

By Fritz Burmeister
Posted: January 2006

It has often been said that Switzerland lies in the heart of Europe, being located west of Austria and Lichtenstein, to the east of France, to the north of Italy and to the south of Germany. To no surprise, four different languages are spoken in this small country, French, German, Italian and Romansh, a Latin derivative. The “Cultural Melting Pot” of Europe may closely describe Switzerland and its people.
Politically, Switzerland did not become a sovereign state until 1848. Before that time it had existed as a loose alliance of independent cantons, free to manage their own affairs within or outside a union. But in 1848 Switzerland became a federal state with a constitution that united the cantons in a federation that struck a fair balance between a central power and the rights of the individual cantons.
Economically, the mountainous terrain provides an enormous resource of waterpower which generates electricity to power industrial machinery with which manufactured goods are produced. Although most of all raw material has to be imported, Switzerland has shown its industrial capacity by a continued increase in exports. Watches, for instance, became world famous and Swiss banks became another claim to fame. They guarantee the depositor absolute secrecy of his account. Even tax collectors of foreign Governments are excluded from checking on transactions with Swiss banks, much to the delight of an income tax evading investor. In addition, Switzerland successfully exports instruments, machinery, chemicals and medicinal products.

In view of the economic developments in Europe since WWII it seems remarkable that Switzerland resists joining the EU. Totally surrounded by EU member states, it seemingly has encapsulated itself economically from its neighbors and the rest of Europe. However, that is not quite the case. Trade relations flourish and exports to EU countries are second only to the US. Switzerland’s reluctance to join in with its trading partners is, therefore, somewhat puzzling. Particularly so, when considering its early efforts to negotiate terms of agreements with the European Economic Community (EEC) in1957, an organization which took first steps towards European economic unity. In spite of the fact that France objected to expand the EEC beyond the original six trading partners (Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, West Germany), Switzerland continued to negotiate for free trade agreements with the EEC on a bilateral basis. Agreements were reached on terms that Switzerland was allowed to retain its neutrality, federalism and democratic policies. After that, many special treaties were negotiated in a bilateral arrangement over the next few decades.

When in 1992 the Swiss Federal Counsil submitted a request for EU membership, bringing in line Swiss laws with those of the European Community (EC), the majority of the cantons objected. And so it was back to square one, issue by issue negotiations with the EU. But while these early efforts “withered on the vine” Switzerland nonetheless declared that EU membership remains a long-term objective.

The typical pragmatic behavior of the Swiss was recently reported in the NZZ (Neue Züricher Zeitung). At the national party convention of the rightwing People’s Party in December, the delegates called for an immediate withdrawal of the dormant EU membership application, now collecting dust in Berne as well as in Brussels. Secondly, their stated opposition for entry into the EU was based on several issues, foremost the required payment of cohesion funds of $ .76 billion as part of the sixteen-point agreement package contained in the application. Emphasis was also placed on the party’s insistence on total protection of Swiss sovereignty and democratic policies. In a speech the justice minister Christoph Blocher said: “The desire to attach Switzerland to the EU has been too great in the administration and politics.” Swiss president and party representative Samuel Schmid also stated that bilateral negotiations should continue in the future, addressing problem areas item by item and not in a package deal. The delegation further recommended that Switzerland’s economic policy should avoid focusing on the EU’s “closed market” and look for trades with other countries on other continents.

Why the Swiss stubbornly holding back when it seems that being an EU member offers advantages over and above free trade, a common currency and open borders, for instance, may not be easily understood. Their apparent love for freedom and elbow room to maneuver economically probably stems from the times when cantons were united in an alliance allowing them to do “their own thing.” Their neutral position in both World Wars underlines this tendency. And the story of William Tell, in which he refused to take off his hat when ordered drives home the point that love of freedom of the Swiss people transcends all else including economic ambitions.

In summation, Switzerland’s long-term objectives are coupled with special conditions for resuming negotiations for membership. First, bilateral agreements reached in 1999 need to be tested to see if and how they work in the real world. Second, the pros and cons of EU membership need to be thoroughly clarified by the Federal Counsil, addressing how the country’s rights, political, economical, and financial and foreign policies are affected. Third and finally, broad support for entry into the EU must be assured.


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