- The Washington Times - Friday, December 22, 2000

GENEVA As the rest of Europe struggles to find the best formula for uniting, the Swiss remain superbly aloof in their picture-postcard country surrounded by Alpine peaks.

Opinion polls in this neutral nation of 7 million leave little doubt. The Swiss would like stronger economic links with their neighbors, but refuse to give up any serious decision-making to an army of "Eurocrats" in Brussels.

Above all, such institutions as ironclad banking secrecy, which has attracted billions to Swiss coffers are simply "not negotiable," officials say.

The time for joining the European Union is "not yet ripe," according to federal President Adolf Ogi, although "full membership in the EU remains the strategic objective of the government."

And, he added in a recent statement: "We Swiss are stubborn and pragmatic, and we have to look after our own interests."

"We like our francs. We don't trust the euro. We have our own specific legislation, with which we are perfectly happy," said Dominique Cicetti, a banker.

Dealing with money has long been a favored Swiss occupation and the main source of the country's income. (Sales of anti-aircraft guns, Swiss army knives, cuckoo clocks and chocolates are of marginal importance.)

Swiss pragmatism has many sides. When, in a September referendum, Swiss voters solidly rejected a proposed limit on the entry of foreigners who constitute about 25 percent of the labor force it was hardly a charitable gesture: Swiss prosperity was at stake.

For example, if the proposed 18 percent quota on foreign workers had been imposed, institutions like Lausanne University's hospital center would have been in trouble 40 percent of its staff of 5,000 are foreigners. Many hotels and restaurants in fashionable resorts could not have functioned because most of the waiters come from Italy, Spain or Portugal.

Then there is the Swiss army, a force that has not fired a shot in anger in nearly two centuries but that is the country's pride.

Every able-bodied Swiss male until age 55 reports for duty for periods of two to six weeks a year (depending on his rank and age), and keeps his uniform, helmet and automatic rifle at home. The annual maneuvers are a welcome break from the office or family chores. Most bank executives are senior reserve officers.

Although Switzerland is not a member of the United Nations, it hosts some 60 international organization, including the U.N.'s European headquarters here in the famous Palais des Nations once the home of the League of Nations.

The Swiss treat the 13,000 international civil servants with what one diplomat called "icy civility." The Swiss refer ironically to the U.N. employees as "les acharnes du travail" workaholics because the bureaucrats are said to work an average four hours a day.

The U.N. edifice stands in a lovely, manicured park with cedars imported from Lebanon and has a magnificent view of Lake Geneva. Beyond, on a clear day, you can see the towering mass of Mont Blanc. Inside, the building is well equipped with bars and lounges, which are rarely empty.

Maurice Bertrand, a former U.N. watchdog, said "the whole object is to create an illusion that member states are doing something together. There is no real discussion of any problem."

Some suggest it is their contact with these well-heeled foreign men and women grossly overpaid by the standards of the thrifty Swiss that has kept Switzerland from joining the United Nations.

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