Swiss minister advocates shift in approach to EU
Switzerland's justice minister said the country, which is not a member of the European Union, had to change its approach to relations with the bloc, in an interview published Sunday.
Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, a conservative former member of the anti-EU Swiss People's Party, acknowledged in the Sonntagszeitung that it was difficult to maintain the 11-year-old piecemeal approach of bilateral economic and technical ties with its neighbours.
Fiercely independent Swiss voters have repeatedly rejected closer political ties and membership of the European Union, although the issue is highly divisive.
"It's certainly right that we should think over our relationship with the EU and have to think hard about what is possible under the conditions of our federal system and direct democracy," she told the weekly.
"What is clear is that we cannot simply carry on as before," she added.
Widmer-Schlumpf argued that the current 27-nation bloc had changed and had less leeway for exceptions from its rules.
She nonetheless ruled out EU membership for now because of the overhaul it would impose on the historic, referendum-based Swiss federal system.
The comments by Widmer-Schlumpf, a highly respected minister whose political career is anchored in the anti-EU right, come amid renewed debate in Switzerland about its European future.
Despite her current opposition to membership, the minister said she could imagine the EU evolving into a "Europe of the regions" with a more devolved federal system in the coming years.
"Then entry for Switzerland would maybe be interesting and possible," Widmer-Schlumpf added.
EU officials have expressed frustration with Switzerland's quest to expand on separate agreements such as free movement of labour, education, border policing and transport, which give it similar economic advantages to member states without assuming the political commitment of membership and joint decision-making.
Iceland last month started formal talks with the European Union over accession. Norway, Switzerland and a few tiny principalities are the only other west European countries that have stayed out of the EU.
"Es ist sicher richtig, dass wir unser Verhaeltnis zur EU ueberdenken und uns Grundsaetsliche Gedanken darueber machen mussen, was unter den Bedingungen unseres direktdemokratischen und foederalistischen Systems moeglich ist. Klar ist, dass wir nicht mehr einfach weitermachen koennen wie bisher."
"Dann wuerde ein Beitritt fuer die Schweiz vielleicht interessant und moeglich."
© 2010 AFP