AS the independent Swiss are realizing, the end of the cold war and the drive for a unified federal Europe means European states may no longer choose a coy neutrality between East and West. The choice today is between being in the new Europe or being out of it.
Clearly, a growing number of Swiss want in. Bolstered by a referendum May 17 to reverse an isolationist policy and join the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, Swiss President Rene Felber took the first step toward getting Zurich "on the road to accession" by stating his government's intention to join the European Community.
But whether the majority of the Swiss will emerge from traditional Alpine seclusion is another question. There is no consensus: Only 37 percent voted in Sunday's referendum, and the vote was split 55 to 44 percent. Even the seven-member Swiss Federal Council agreed to seek EC membership by only a 4-3 margin.
Still, a push is on for two reasons: First, there's a rush to join the EC partly out of concern that since other countries are applying - including formerly neutral Sweden, Finland, and Austria - the cost of not joining will be severe. The recession (coupled with inflation) in Switzerland, the first in 20 years, adds to the anxiety.
Second, an ever-growing segment of Switzerland's younger generation wants to be connected to the larger "Euro-culture."
Polls show that 40 percent of the Swiss want to join the EC; 40 percent don't; 20 percent are undecided. Joining the EC is no longer a matter of simple economic union. After the Maastricht Treaty of last December, joining the EC means giving a large share of political decisionmaking to Brussels. That's a leap that even French and Germans, let alone the Swiss, are concerned about.
A new 19-nation group called the European Economic Area has been formed to help non-EC states make that leap. A referendum on Dec. 6 to join the EEA will show the Swiss temper. First, the Swiss must agree in September to build EC-sponsored rail tunnels through the Alps - a good idea whether they join or not.