No harm in Swiss 'no'

BRUSSELS - The prospect of an enlarged European Community of some 19 members is not harmed by the Swiss rejection of a free-trade deal binding them closer to the Community, EC foreign ministers said last night, writes Sarah Lambert.

'We respect the Swiss decision and there are mechanisms in the treaty to allow for such a contingency, but it must not be allowed to hold up everyone else,' said the Foreign Office Minister responsible for European affairs, Tristan Garel-Jones.

By voting 'no' in a referendum on whether or not Switzerland should ratify the agreement creating the European Economic Area (EEA), the country has forced renegotiation of a treaty agreed after months of hard bargaining last year. Conceived as a half-way house to full EC membership, it offered Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Switzerland, Austria and Liechtenstein - currently members of the European Free Trade Association (Efta) - the advantages of the Community's free- trade zone without the political commitments.

EC diplomats made clear that the Swiss rejection was a Swiss problem. The country has already applied to open negotiations on full EC membership and that, EC officials said yesterday, remains on the table.

But the reality is that the timetable for everyone else is necessarily slowed since the treaty mentions Switzerland in virtually all its numerous clauses and will have to be re-written.

The seven Efta nations meet on Thursday and Friday to discuss the problem and will report to the EC at a meeting conveniently scheduled for next Monday. But Efta officials said that a new treaty could not be ready before February at the earliest. This is in itself something of a failure since the seven had hoped to be part of the single market from its inception on 1 January.

In theory, Sweden, Austria Finland, Norway and Switzerland could decide to abandon the EEA arrangement and begin discussion on full membership straightaway. But events of recent months have had a negative effect on public opinion. 'We need the EEA if only to prove to the public that full EC memberships won't result in mass immigration or a dilution of our welfare laws,' an official confided yesterday.

The burning question is whether negotiations on admitting new members can begin before the Maastricht treaty is ratified - in principle the sine qua non of enlargement. Spain, Portugal, Greece and Ireland are insisting that financial commitments promised under the treaty must first be made good.