Switzerland took a major step towards ending its self-imposed isolation in Europe on Sunday, after a large majority of voters approved a package of seven bilateral accords, which will sweep away almost all trade barriers with the European Union.
The bilateral accords were backed by 67.2 per cent of Swiss voters - a clear signal that the country is ready to strengthen its commercial relations with the EU. The vast majority of cantons also supported the agreements, with only two voting against.
The result of the referendum was hailed as a breakthrough for Swiss relations with the EU. But the EU's foreign affairs commissioner, Chris Patten, made it clear he wanted the accords to lead to greater political integration. "I don't want to appear to be intervening in Switzerland's internal affairs, but there are those who think something politically more ambitious is required. We should look at the totality of our relations."
However, most ministers in Berne and Brussels were anxious to play down suggestions that the accords were a first step to full European Union membership - something which most Swiss voters oppose.
The Swiss foreign minister, Joseph Deiss, described the outcome as an important step into the 21st century, but said it did not give the government a mandate to pursue further European integration.
The president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, said the agreements would strengthen relations, but he too made clear that they "would in no way prejudice steps towards further integration".
The accords, which allow for free movement of people and the abolition of most trade barriers, will enable Switzerland to enjoy most of the commercial benefits of EU membership, without joining the Union.
The agreements will have no effect on Swiss political sovereignty, and there are even opt-out clauses in the agreements to protect Switzerland in case the influx of labour or road traffic from the EU is bigger than anticipated.
The bilateral accords were drafted as an alternative to membership of the EU and the European Economic Area, after Swiss voters rejected membership of the latter in a referendum in 1992.
As expected, the strongest support for the bilaterals came from French-speaking Switzerland. The biggest majority was in canton Vaud, where 80 per cent voted in favour. Geneva supported the agreements with a 78 per cent majority.
The German-speaking cantons also overwhelmingly endorsed the accords, with only the staunchly conservative canton of Schwyz casting a majority "no" vote. The strongest support was in the cantons Basel-city and Basel-country, close to the borders of France and Germany.
The strongest opposition to the accords came from the Italian-speaking canton Ticino, which rejected them by a margin of 57 to 43 per cent. Opinion polls say residents are fearful of an influx of cheap labour from Italy.
Turnout was a surprisingly low 48 per cent - compared to 79 per cent in the 1992 referendum on membership of the European Economic Area. Sunday's nationwide vote came after small right-wing parties managed to garner enough signatures to force a vote on the accords.
The seven accords cover issues including: road and rail traffic, free movement of people, economic and technical cooperation, public procurement, mutual acceptance of diplomas and licences, agriculture and aviation.
By far the most controversial of these issues are traffic and the free movement of people. Campaigners for a "no" vote continually warned that Switzerland would be swamped by heavy lorries and cheap workers, in the run-up to the vote.
swissinfo with agencies
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