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Lofty Swiss look down on EC advances

THE LADY at the Swiss government's end of telephone helpline reassured her caller. No, she said, immigrants could not flood into Switzerland if the country voted 'yes' - in a referendum today - to joining the European Economic Area (EEA), the single market of 376 million people due to be created on 1 January.

'North Africans or people from the Eastern bloc, for example - well, there will be extremely severe controls on them, and it will be very difficult for them to enter Switzerland,' she said.

The polls show that the Swiss, like the Danes before them, may cast a shadow over the process of European economic integration. Spurred by fear that the world's most comfortable life style may face disruption, a majority of voters in the German-speaking areas say they oppose the pact.

The agreement would include Switzerland and the other six members of the European Free Trade Association (Efta) in a single market with the 12 EC countries, without committing them to political union, a single currency or any of the contentious elements of the Maastricht treaty.

A visitor from Britain could be excused for not noticing symptoms of crisis as the Rolls-Royces glide along the shores of Lake Geneva and the season's first servings of Krug and lobster are consumed in ski chalets. For the Swiss, however, an economic downturn - 'recession' hardly seems a fitting word - has coincided with a sense that, after 700 years of neutrality and direct local democracy, underpinned by free trade, the country has reached a crossroads. Unemployment is 3.5 per cent. Consumer price inflation remains stubbornly around the same percentage level. Property prices are on the slide. The business community has lobbied furiously for a 'yes' vote. But the opponents are not to be convinced. 'By accepting the accord, Switzerland will have to dance to the EC's tune,' proclaims a newspaper advertisement. 'She will be joining heavily indebted countries with low salaries, poor quality of life and weak currencies.' It predicts a rush of workers from poorer EC countries into the Swiss job market.

The government's problems are compounded by the fact that the Swiss system of democracy demands that the treaty be approved by a majority of the 4.5 million voters and by more than half of the 23 cantons of the Swiss confederation. The polls show that, while voters in the French and Italian-speaking cantons are heavily in favour, the Alpine redoubts of Swiss German tradition are firmly against.

'The campaign has revealed a gulf between an introverted, super-patriotic Switzerland and (the) economic, political and media class,' argued Peter Rothenbuhler, editor of the Schweizer Illustrierte.

If the vote goes against the EEA, the other 18 nations are expected to renegotiate the treaty, and Switzerland can only hope for a special deal. That may leave the super-patriots undisturbed. After all, five years ago, they voted resoundingly to stay out of the UN.