`Fortress Switzerland' Takes Stock of Europe

In the face of barreling European trucks, Swiss preserve national identity - a letter from Villars

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

CATS in rural Switzerland are often seen sitting tensely in open fields waiting to pounce on mice. Not even the passing trains - often rushing by within yards of the cats - can shake the feline concentration.

Eight days of traveling by foot, and on amazingly punctual trains in this country, reveal a Switzerland that has become a jittery cat as a new Europe rushes by, forcing the country to question its vaunted identity as "fortress Switzerland."

Legendary for their unswerving neutrality and democracy since 1515, the Swiss late this May applied for entrance into the European Community (subject to voter approval).

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But is this the harbinger of the end of "fortress Switzerland," the country where direct democracy in the rural style means raising a hand five or six times a year at the village meeting?

Not so fast, says the cat.

Although drug addicts can now be seen in Geneva, Bern, and Zurich, there are nowhere near the numbers found in other European cities. And with an unemployment rate of around 2.3 percent, Switzerland is hardly plagued with soup kitchens. Nor has a single Swiss bank failed recently.

Throughout Europe, the Swiss are known as time-consuming negotiators, unafraid to linger and linger over agreements until all the T's are crossed to their satisfaction, even at their opponents' frustration. Impatient countries that want to be part of the European Community expect the Swiss to negotiate with the EC at length. These wealthy countries, including Sweden and Finland, might find themselves waiting in line behind the Swiss until 1995 or 1996. Poorer countries would have to wait even longer.

When the Swiss Constitution of 1874 brought together 22 squabbling cantons, a key element was the citizen's right of referendum. Obtain 50,000 signatures, and any Swiss organization or person can challenge a law. With membership in the EC, Swiss voters would be subject to many decisions made by the EC without the familiar power of referendum.

Recently Swiss voters showed that they can still forge an agreement with the Europe favorable to their conviction that what is good for Switzerland is not to be denied.

They approved more than $10 billion for two tunnels to be blasted through the Alps at the Lotschberg and St. Gotthard passes. In negotiations with the EC, the Swiss promised to increase their rail capacity through the tunnels. But in return they retained their ban on all truck traffic at night and on Sundays.

When the tunnels are completed, many foreign trucks will be taken in and out of Switzerland by railroad, instead of barreling along Swiss highways, causing pollution and frightening cats. Nearly two hours would be cut from a truck driver's travel time, and departure and arrival would be on schedule.

To understand the Swiss and their continuing cultural predilection for the supremacy of order and exactitude, consider the sublime Swiss trains, trams, and buses.

Between Geneva and Bex the hour-and-a-half train ride by Lake Leman and through miles of vineyard country was a virtually bump-free. No clatter, no rolling. The floors and windows were spotless; the seats were of living-room quality.

Between Villars and Ollon, the immaculate, quiet, blunt-nosed, bus maneuvered narrow, winding mountainous roads as if were on an invisible track. And the driver spoke four languages.

One late, foggy night, between Villars and the resort village of Gryon, the red, electric tram, with only two people on board, waited until 9:37 to leave. As the second hand touched zero, the driver give a toot and inched forward into the night.

Years from now, if "fortress Switzerland" were swallowed by the social and economic forces of a runaway Europe, the first signs may not have been drugs, unemployment, and failing banks, but dirty or tardy trains and fields without cats.

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