Leading Article: No lorries in the Swiss backyard

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The Independent Online
EXCEPT for those who have either been there on holiday or broken down while crossing the Gotthard pass, few Britons are familiar with the tiny Swiss canton of Uri. Yet Uri, whose population of fewer than 34,000 is outnumbered eight to one by that of Ealing, has just prompted a decision by the Swiss people in a national referendum that could have far-reaching effects on the future of Europe.

The referendum, passed in defiance of the Swiss government after a heart-rending advertising campaign orchestrated in Uri and other mountain cantons, will ban all foreign lorries from Swiss Alpine roads a decade from now - unless they are delivering or picking up in Switzerland itself. One of the few goods routes between northern and southern Europe will consequently be closed to road transport. The much-vaunted European single market, with its promise of free movement of goods across the Union, will be confined to consignments by rail and air. Germany and Italy will be particularly affected.

Sympathy for such a forthright gesture is easy. But the Swiss have already put in place strict limits on other people's transit lorries. Only a tiny number of the 40-tonne trucks standard elsewhere in Europe are allowed to pass through their country; and the trucks of 28 tonnes that may come and go freely must buy an annual fee for the use of Swiss roads costing up to 3,000 Swiss francs ( pounds 1,400), with no discounts for a single round trip.

The new ban will wreak havoc with relations between Switzerland and the EU, because it will force the Swiss government to renege on the limited opening to European goods traffic that it negotiated only two years ago. It will make the already remote chance of Swiss accession to the Union remoter still.

The ban may also inject uncertainty into talks this week between Brussels and Austria, which wants to join the Union. Austria signed a similar transit agreement, as part of the creation of a broader European- wide free-trade zone. It was originally assumed that Austria would have to accept lorry traffic just like everyone else once it joined. The stubborn Swiss may now have strengthened the Austrians' hand, allowing them to insist that existing limits stay in place.

The ban says much about the xenophobia that has so long been part of Swiss thinking, despite its dependence on foreign trade and strategic position at the centre of Europe. But it sends a more serious message, too. The country with the world's highest per-capita national income is saying to itself and its neighbours: 'We're rich enough, thanks. Never mind free trade and economic growth. We'd rather keep our wild flowers.' This cry, which comes upwards from the people rather than downwards from government, is not yet clearly articulated. But it is a taste of things to come that formulators of public policy all over the Continent would be unwise to ignore.

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