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Swiss starting to see benefits of being European

Stuck in long lines at Europe's airports, squeezed out of exciting job markets and frustrated at nitpicking customs rules, many Swiss are beginning to wish they were more European.

As their neighbors prepare for monetary union and expansion of trade pacts eastward, the Swiss are standing forlornly aside in their self-imposed Alpine isolation.The Swiss electorate voted against joining a loose European free trade grouping five years ago. Fearful of another snub at the ballot box, the government has frozen an application to join the more closely knit European Union trade bloc.

But as they mark their confederation's 150th anniversary this year, many Swiss are realizing their much-championed neutrality isn't enough.

"Swiss independence no longer consists of building a wall around one's own garden and defending it from outside attacks," President Flavio Cotti said in a recent newspaper interview.

Cotti, who is also foreign minister, argued it would be better to influence decisions from inside by joining the 15-nation European Union. He didn't set a target date.

Recent polls indicate a majority of Swiss favor EU membership, although most observers predict that a vote would be tight. But even Euro-skeptics in Switzerland's rural heartland are slowly coming around.

"There's been a big change in mentality because people see that sooner or later Switzerland will join the EU, even though it will have serious consequences for us," said Thomas Meyer of the Swiss Farmers' Union.

Many farmers voted against the European Economic Area free trade zone in 1992 because of fears of cheaper foreign competition. With farming heavily subsidized by the state, EU produce is, on average, 50 percent cheaper than in Switzerland.

Young Swiss most strongly support joining Europe. They have less regard for traditional neutrality than their parents and want to take part in EU decisions that have an impact on their daily lives, said Cornelia Luthy, a 30-year-old lawyer.

"It's very difficult for a Swiss bank here to transfer a Swiss member of staff to its office in London because they can't get a work permit," Luthy said.

During travels to other European countries, their red and white passports condemn Swiss to long airport waits with passengers from developing countries while their EU compatriots whiz through formalities.