4 de febrero de 2009

"Switzerland 's relations with the European Union"

A sinister image of black crows pecking at a map of Switzerland starkly illustrates what the biggest Swiss political party sees as the stakes Sunday in a referendum that will shape the country's relations with the European Union.

Traditionally neutral,
with its banks a storehouse for money from all over Europe and the world, Switzerland has a series of agreements with 25 of the 27 European Union countries permitting freedom of movement. On Sunday, it must decide whether to renew them, and extend them to the EU's two newest members, Romania and Bulgaria.

The rightist Swiss People's Party, or SVP, the country's largest, is unabashed about opposing the addition of the EU's two poorest members. "Other European countries are rich, not like Romania and Bulgaria," said Kevin Grangiaer, an SVP spokesman in Bern. "The gap in the level between these two countries and Switzerland is too big."

With its black crow poster campaign, the SVP is repeating tactics that won it the largest share of the vote in last year's national elections, and playing to fears that a yes vote would expose this calm, orderly Alpine nation to a flood of the impoverished and unskilled, bent on plundering its prosperity and social welfare benefits.

The party's argument glosses over the fact that, even under the free movement agreement, access for Romanians and Bulgarians would still be restricted for some years. By contrast, the Swiss government, other major political parties, business and employers' associations and some unions support renewing and extending the free movement agreements as essential to Switzerland's economic health, particularly in time of crisis.

The existing framework of agreements helps 400,000 Swiss live in the EU, while 600,000 EU citizens work in Switzerland. Swiss industry draws heavily on foreign skills and the ability to recruit whomever they like is key to Switzerland's allure as a location for multinational corporations and foreign investment, said Rudolf Minsch, chief economist at economiesuisse.

More importantly, perhaps, the freedom of movement agreements are part of a package of measures agreed in 2000 with the EU which opened up European markets to trade, aviation, overland transport and Swiss participation in European research projects.

Switzerland went on to conclude a second package of agreements with the EU in 2004. More than 60 percent of Swiss exports go to the EU, 20,000 trucks cross its borders every day - along with some 200,000 "frontaliers" - people who live in neighboring countries but work in Switzerland. Conversely, Switzerland's tiny but affluent population of 7.6 million people is second only to the United States as a market for EU goods and still bigger than either Russia or China.

Such has been the benefit of these accords that the government is bent on deepening and broadening ties with the EU across a range of sectors from agriculture and electricity to the environment and cooperation with the European Defense Agency. But the prospects for moving ahead in these areas depends significantly on the outcome of the referendum Sunday.

If voters reject free movement, a guillotine clause introduced by the EU provides for terminating all the 2000 agreements six months later
. Supporters of the agreements are unsure how badly that would hurt the Swiss economy, but the very uncertainty caused by unraveling the basis on which trade is now conducted would be a big negative for business, Minsch said.

Switzerland would still have a free trade agreement with the EU, but doing business would become more complicated and costly, said Adrian Sollberger, chief of information at the Federal Department of Economic Affairs. Moreover, the focus of Swiss relations with Europe would shift from further developing ties to "limiting the damage done," he says.

Little more than a year ago, the Swiss People's Party campaigned for a general election playing on mistrust of immigrants with a controversial poster showing white sheep kicking a black sheep off a Swiss flag. Fierce criticism of the poster's racist overtones did not stop it from winning close to 30 percent - the biggest share - of the vote.

The black crow campaign may resonate with a substantially bigger audience. In 2000, the agreements with the EU won the approval of 67 percent of voters. Four years later, the second package was approved by 54 percent of voters. But an opinion poll last week found 50 percent of its sample would support extending freedom of movement, with 43 percent opposed and 7 percent undecided.

As in previous votes on EU-related issues, Geneva and French-speaking areas of Switzerland are more supportive, but in German-speaking cantons and most particularly in Italian-speaking areas, opinion swings against them. "It doesn't help that we are facing an economic crisis now and unemployment rates are rising," Sollberger, of the economic affairs office, said.

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