Limits of sovereignty

Referendum: For Switzerland, joining U.N. may be easier than considering European Union.

March 08, 2002

ITS TRADITION of neutrality is so strong that Switzerland isn't a member of the United Nations, even though Geneva has more U.N. offices than any other city outside of New York.

This odd situation is finally about to end. In a close referendum last weekend, voters gave their government a go-ahead to apply for membership in the United Nations.

For decades, Switzerland was perfectly content to play the part of good host. The country was willing to facilitate but not get involved. As a result, a bewildering array of global headquarters concentrated there, from the International Red Cross to the International Olympic Committee to the World Council of Churches.

Switzerland's attitude has changed in the past decade. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War have enabled the Swiss to regard their neutrality in a new light. A remarkable result of that reinterpretation was the country's partnership agreement with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Their new assertiveness will give them a chance to exercise leadership, which they are likely to do with deliberation and fairness, qualities that fit their character and that are much in demand.

The narrowness of the referendum victory suggests difficult prospects for the Swiss government's hope to join the European Union. No surprise there.

U.N. membership may involve participating in peacekeeping duties and other difficult missions, but European Union bureaucrats insist on far more meaningful mandates, such as changes in the ingredients of cheeses and chocolates. That's where Switzerland's sovereignty will really be put to the test.

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