Switzerland has decided to stick to its traditional values and avoid any radical political or economic experiments: In 1999, calls for cabinet reform were rejected, a cautious next step towards Europe was accepted, and the economy slowly picked up.
On the threshold of the year 2000, Switzerland has decided to stick to its traditional values and avoid any radical political or economic experiments: In 1999, calls for cabinet reform were rejected, a cautious next step towards Europe was accepted, and the economy slowly picked up.
In the realm of politics, 1999 began with the (voluntary) resignation of two cabinet ministers and ended with the confirmation of the "magic formula" - the traditional allocation of power among the four major parties represented in the government.
Vociferous members of the political right challenged the 40-year-old arrangement of power in the wake of major gains in parliamentary elections. But political parties rallied and repelled the challenge.
Swiss voters, who are regularly called to the polls to make political decisions, approved a major overhaul of the Swiss constitution that will come into force on January 1st, 2000.
After years of heated political debate and tense negotiations with Brussels, the Swiss also came out in favour of a broad package of political, economic and social accords with the European Union. Once approved by all 15-EU member state parliaments, the accords will move Switzerland the closest yet to the European body.
Political observers note that this decision marked a cautious step on the road towards European integration. And while many have welcomed that cautious approach, analysts point out that Switzerland remains in many ways isolated internationally as the country is still not a member of the EU, the United Nations or NATO.
Over the past 12 months, Switzerland again came under pressure - not least from members of the EU -- to ease its banking secrecy laws. But the government rejected those calls. It referred to Swiss efforts over the past years to crack down on abuses in the banking world, and underlined the necessity of banking secrecy for Switzerland as an international financial market.
During the Kosovo crisis, Switzerland lived up to its humanitarian tradition and helped provide emergency and reconstruction aid in the Balkans. Much of that support came via the Swiss-based International Committee of the Red Cross, but also included direct aid by the federal authorities and NGOs.
Domestically, though, the Kosovo crisis yet again raised the controversial issue of just how many refugees Switzerland can, or should, allow into the country. As it turned out, Switzerland and Germany took in by far the most Kosovar refugees. But the crisis clearly influenced a decision by Swiss voters to toughen asylum laws in a vote in summer.
The refugee issue also resurfaced in a different, yet equally controversial context: A panel of international experts, the so-called Bergier commission of historians, looked at Switzerland's refugee policy during World War II.
The report, while widely welcomed both at home and internationally for its honesty of approach, was hardly flattering for Switzerland. The report noted that Switzerland did take in thousands of refugees, many of them Jews. But the Bergier commission also made clear that Switzerland could have saved the lives of thousands of Jewish refugees if the authorities had shown a more humane interpretation of the refugee laws of the
The Bergier report came just days after another damning indictment by a panel headed by former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker. His commission of eminent persons had been probing whether Swiss banks hoarded Holocaust victims' wealth.
The panel said it had found nearly 54,000 accounts probably or perhaps linked to Nazi victims, but that banks had not conspired to steal Jews' money. The committee nevertheless criticised some banks for their callous treatment of victims, misleading statements and sloppy record-keeping, especially many years ago.
From staff and wire reports.
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