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The neutral Swiss prepare to vote on U.N. membership

LIESTAL, Switzerland (AP) _ ``I'm proud to be Swiss,'' declares Edgar Giess as he smoothes his festive carnival costume and takes a swig of beer after the exertions of a unique and fiery Lenten procession through the streets of this medieval town.

``But we belong to the rest of the world,'' he adds, in a moment of wistful reflection amid the raucous celebrations.

Giess's sentiments reflect the impassioned national debate about whether Switzerland should join the remaining 189 countries in the world and enter the United Nations or continue as an observer _ the only state alongside the Vatican.

A referendum is scheduled for March 3.

Supporters, including the government, argue that national pride is compatible with U.N. membership.

But opponents claim U.N. membership would force Switzerland to abandon its cherished sovereignty and submit to the political dictates of the five permanent members of the Security Council.

Seventy-five percent of Swiss rejected U.N. membership in 1986 at the height of the Cold War, saying they did not want their neutrality compromised by East-West polarization.

Recent opinion polls, though, predict about 56 percent support for membership.

Swiss President Kaspar Villiger voted against U.N. membership last time. Since then, he says, the United Nations has changed immeasurably for the better, and tiny Switzerland _ population 7 million _ needs to be a full member to have any influence on the global political stage.

Villiger said membership should cost $42 million a year, compared with the $1.8 billion a year economic windfall from the presence of U.N. European headquarters in Geneva.

Switzerland already belongs to specialized U.N. agencies like the World Health Organization and International Labor Organization, provides logistical help to peacekeeping operations and invariably follows U.N. sanctions.

The government _ backed by Swiss industry, banks and interest groups _ fears another rejection of full membership will make Switzerland an international outcast with a selfish and uncaring reputation.

``I can't accept that my country is the only one in the world not to subscribe to the U.N. charter,'' said Cornelio Sommaruga, former president of the International Committee of the Red Cross _ the very symbol of Swiss neutrality.

``I want my country finally to participate in solving the political, economic and environmental problems of this world. We should renounce our arrogance and false sense of superiority.''

Yet Christoph Blocher _ a billionaire industrialist who opposes U.N. membership _ said Switzerland was successful and wealthy precisely because it was different.

``We have our system of direct democracy, neutrality and federalism. We would lose that if we became a member of the United Nations,'' Blocher said.

Blocher arguably is the most charismatic and influential politician in Switzerland. He swung a 1992 vote against Swiss membership in a loose European free trade pact, forcing the government to delay plans to join the European Union.

Blocher's arguments are echoed in Liestal, a small town in rolling green countryside near the northern city of Basel. Here, as elsewhere, the streets are lined with emotive opposition campaign posters _ such as an ax smashing into a banner with the word ``neutrality.''

``I don't see why we have to do what everybody else does. After all, it's only the five big countries which have any say,'' said Ueli Hermann, a local council worker and trumpet player in one of the carnival bands.

Band leader Hans Meier said, ``We should stay neutral and independent.

``Why do we need the United Nations when we have carnival? This is different from other carnivals and we're different from other countries.''

Meier relished the spectacle of the Liestal's unique ``Chienbaeseumzug,'' or ``fir broom procession,'' in which 200 locals rush through narrow streets with long, flaming firwood brooms and blazing carts, sending flames two stories up.

The latest polls predict Basel-Landschaft, the state in which Liestal is situated, slightly favors U.N. membership. Other small states in Switzerland's rural heartland, where suspicion of the outside world runs high, likely will reject the proposal.

That die-hard defense of strict independence, especially among older voters, frustrates those seeking to ease the Alpine nation's self-imposed isolation.

``We've been hearing the same message about neutrality for too long,'' Giess said, brushing off his colorful carnival rosettes. ``The world has changed and it's about time we did, too.''
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