The Swiss voted Sunday to continue their close cooperation with the European Union by approving a law to give the 10 newest EU members 1 billion Swiss francs ($800 million) in economic aid.
Some 53.4 percent voted in favor of the measure, which will benefit the eight former communist and two Mediterranean countries that joined the bloc in 2004, while 46.6 percent of voters opposed the payments. Turnout was 44.4 percent.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso in Brussels said Swiss voters had understood that their country stood to gain from stronger economies in the new member states.
It also means that Bulgaria and Romania, which are slated to join the EU on Jan. 1 and do not currently stand to benefit from the funds, could be included in future payments without popular approval.
The EU’s external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said the vote was a “confirmation of the bilateral path and the basis for the future development of relations between Switzerland and the EU.”
Meanwhile, Switzerland’s economics minister Doris Leuthard said the decision would give her country’s policy toward Europe “a very high credibility.”
Switzerland’s anomalous position — surrounded by EU countries but not part of the bloc — has in the past caused tension between Brussels and Bern, with the Swiss preferring bilateral negotiations over full membership.
The neutral Alpine country, which only became a full U.N. member in 2002, has shown reluctance in joining the EU even though its membership application has been pending with Brussels since 1992.
In 2001, the Swiss voted with a resounding three-quarters majority against starting immediate negotiations on joining the union.
But although political membership of the 25-member bloc remains off the cards, Swiss voters have shown a willingness to continue the successful economic cooperation with Brussels that has benefited both sides.
Sunday’s vote follows two previous referendums in the past 18 months approving the free movement of people and goods between Switzerland and the EU.
In the run-up to the referendum, advocates of the payments had warned that a defeat of the law could lead the European Union to take a new, hard line in future negotiations with Switzerland. Cooperation agreements on transit, energy and research issues between Switzerland and the EU are all currently under discussion.
Since 1990, Switzerland has given 3.45 billion Swiss francs toward hundreds of development projects in 23 countries in Eastern Europe, particularly in the Balkans and the former Soviet republics.
The new payments will help compensate the 10 youngest EU members for the fact that, until 2011, only a fixed number of their workers are allowed into Switzerland, unlike those from the original 15 EU countries who are free to seek jobs here in unlimited numbers.
Backers of the measure used fears of massive immigration from poor Eastern European countries to make the case of strengthening economic conditions in the former communist countries, arguing that this would prevent an influx of cheap labor into Switzerland.
In the end, a majority of the 4.8 million voters backed the government position against the wishes of nationalist parties, who had warned that approving the measure could set a dangerous precedent for future demands from Brussels.
Under the country’s system of direct democracy, binding referendums occur regularly throughout the year to allow the population to give its consent on major issues.