Pity the rich Swiss - they have to accept their own normality

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Berne - Panic in paradise? Well, not quite. But a visit to Switzerland in early 1998 is a distinctly disconcerting experience. Now the conservative Swiss are not ones to get carried away. But in its sedate fashion the place is in ferment. It's not that BSE has broken out on the scented Alpine pastures, or that poverty beckons for Europe's richest country, still as ruinously expensive as ever. Scratch a little deeper though, and you are amazed. As never before perhaps in the 150 years of the modern state, the assumptions on which Switzerland is based are under challenge. Up in the mountains, the glaciers are retreating in the face of global warming. Down in the plains and valleys, where Switzerland meets the outside world, it is frozen history that is melting. And not before time.

Switzerland is a prisoner of its myth. For the Swiss, theirs has been the land apart, which thanks to its valour, industry and good sense had avoided the traumas that engulfed the rest of Europe. It has seen itself as the purest distillation of independence and neutrality, underpinned by an Athenian system of direct democracy envied by the rest of us. And envy it we did. Depression, world wars, cold wars, the birth of a new Europe - come what may, Switzerland sailed serenely onward, rich and contented. No longer. From both the past and the present, the Swiss myth is under siege.

The catalyst of course has been the Nazi-gold controversy. The end of the Cold War, had buried allegations of Swiss collaboration with the Nazis under the greater need to contain the Russians. Periodically, doubts would crop up, even in Switzerland; but basically the myth survived: heroism, not expediency, saved the Swiss from the Third Reich.

Well, Switzerland now learns, not quite. The revelations of dormant accounts, fresh details of how the country was Hitler's financial conduit to the rest of the world and how it turned many Jews away - all erode the way the country regards itself. Not unnaturally, the Swiss are searching around for culprits. Some blame jealous foreigners for exaggerating modest sins into huge iniquities, others blame the banks for their obsession with secrecy and their heartless treatment of Holocaust survivors seeking money hidden by murdered relatives. And of course others blame the Jews. But gradually, one senses, reality is dawning. The country was not an active collaborator of Nazism; indeed it behaved better than either France or Austria, and its role may be compared to that of Sweden. But neither was it perfect.

And the extent of that imperfection will be revealed. The Swiss are nothing if not meticulous. Three separate investigations are underway into the country's behaviour. A first detailed report in April will deal with the gold dealings; the word is that it will be "very critical." Others will follow on the conduct of Swiss insurance companies, trading in looted art, and more besides. But the broad conclusion is already clear. Entirely surrounded by Axis powers and dependent on outside raw materials, Switzerland did what it had to do - what most others would have done: it compromised.

Now turn history forward half a century. Once more Switzerland is surrounded. This time the encircler takes the more benign shape of the European Union, but again the limits of "independence" are exposed. The Swiss Government is now committed to joining the EU. As Flavio Cotti, who currently holds the rotating presidency of the federation points out, it has scant choice in the matter: "A country remaining outside has to pay the price of isolation." Berne and the EU are presently negotiating a bilateral agreement, which amounts to a pre-accession treaty and which might well founder on a transport dispute. But the sense of the process is clear. Switzerland is in a corner. As in 1939, it must get the best deal it can.

Conceivably, clinging to an imagined independence, the country may yet turn its back on the EU. But even if it does, the new Europe has already undermined that other holy canon of neutrality. Strip away the myth, and you realise neutrality was an instrument to keep Switzerland out of wars between overwhelmingly more powerful neighbours. But today, war between Germany and France is inconceivable. Swiss neutrality in its old fashioned sense is an irrelevance; in the Cold War the country was taken for granted as part of the West. Now a more humdrum neutrality beckons, like that of Sweden, Austria, or Ireland.

But such a realisation is not a cause for joy. The embrace of Europe is reluctant, born not of idealism but necessity. Already Switzerland must shape its economic laws with one eye on the EU. Full membership implies, perforce, greater centralisation and a weakening of the cherished system of referenda and town hall decision-making. If the Euro succeeds, another symbol of nationhood, the Swiss franc, is also doomed. And even Switzerland's legendary 500,000-strong citizens militia, each with a rifle under the bed, trained to blow up the mountain passes to save the motherland at the first trump of an Alpine horn, may be no more. Save the motherland from whom ? There are now proposals for a 10,000 man professional standing army. In this moment of self-questioning, nothing is sacred.

Is this the end of "Swiss-ness"? Of course not - no more than the EU has drained the nationhood from France, Britain or Italy. But for once the expression "turning point" is not a cliche. A senior member of one of the commissions says, "I see us in the UN in five or ten years, and then inside the EU." No more splendid isolation, fewer myths, no more Swiss exceptionalism. Just a small, extremely wealthy country at the very heart of Europe. For most of us, such normality would indeed be paradise. For Switzerland, adjustment to it is a trauma.

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