Swiss Ask Whether They're an Island

They debate closer ties to neighbors

Switzerland celebrates its 705th birthday today. As it does, some Swiss are questioning whether the country is in danger of losing its independence.

Although many citizens say their country and the European Union share the same destiny, many others say Switzerland must remain as isolated as possible from the 15 EU-member countries that surround them.

"Further integration into the EU will erode our independence," says Guy Dumartheray, who lives in Geneva. "The symbol of Aug. 1 is in peril as bilateral talks with the EU continue. We have to stay master of our house."

Economic negotiations between Switzerland and the EU were scheduled to be completed this summer. The EU wants Switzerland to grant EU citizens the same freedom of movement for travel and work currently enjoyed between EU nations. In return, Switzerland would gain further access to EU members' research, economic expertise, and markets.

Far-right and conservative parties in Switzerland oppose free movement. They worry that job competition and social costs will increase as foreign immigrants and refugees are allowed in.

Switzerland has the eighth-largest economy in Europe and the 16th largest in the world, despite being one of the world's smallest countries geographically. Two-thirds of the country's trade is with EU member countries.

As a nonmember, however, Switzerland has no political say within the EU.

With Switzerland's four main political parties still at odds over the issue of freedom of movement, however, talks with the EU may not decide anything soon.

The far-right Swiss People's Party, for example, has argued for Swiss legislation to curb the number of foreigners in the country, which presently make up 18 percent of the total 6.9 million population.

"We're not ready to allow freedom of movement," says the party's secretary general, Myrtha Welti. "The Federal Council says it will stabilize the [current] foreign population, but that has not happened so far.''

The moderate and liberal parties are more willing to allow free movement. The Christian Democrat Party argues that if Switzerland doesn't reach an agreement with the EU, it will lose out.

"If Switzerland wants to be an island, it has no chance to survive," says Raymond Loretan, secretary general of the Christian Democrat Party. "To negotiate is to give and receive."

The Christian Democrats have support from the Federal government, which has repeatedly said that the current negotiations are an interim step toward the long-term goal of joining the EU.

Membership in the EU constitutes a strategic objective for the Swiss government, especially since neighboring Austria joined the EU 1995, according to the latest reports published by the Federal Department of Integration.

"Switzerland has a rich infrastructure and is competitive," says Roland Bless, a spokesman for the Federal Council. "But if it is to remain so, it's not likely it can stay out of the EU. To protect its own interests, it must join."

Many citizens agree.

''The hesitation and uncertainty of the Swiss population about the EU is disturbing," said Claude Othenin-Girard, a real-estate broker in Geneva. "We have to have a more open-minded approach to the world outside."

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