London (CNSNews.com) - Swiss voters have given a resounding "no" to seeking immediate closer ties between their historically neutral country and the European Union, although those on both sides of the debate have different interpretations of the result of the weekend national referendum.
In a country so fiercely independent it has not even joined the United Nations, a "no" vote was widely expected in Sunday's vote, but the margin of the defeat - 77-23 percent - surprised many. In every one of the country's 26 cantons or states, the "no" vote carried the day.
The coalition government saw the result as evidence that the Swiss wanted to approach entry into the EU slowly and carefully, and said the overall goal of joining in the future remained.
The outcome "cannot be interpreted as a rejection of a future membership of Switzerland into the EU," it said in a statement. It was rather merely a refusal to enter talks on the subject now. The government wants to open talks within five years and enter the EU by 2010.
The EU's executive Commission itself took a similar approach, with spokesman Luc Veron quoted as saying: "The Swiss did not say no to Europe. They chose to answer the question later. And this is obviously a choice the European Commission respects."
But conservative businessman Christoph Blocher, head of the nationalist Swiss People's Party, hailed the result and declared the issue dead for at least a decade. He told Swiss radio that voters had sent the government a clear message that they wanted to hold onto "independence, neutrality and direct democracy."
And Hans Fehr of the Campaign for an Independent and Neutral Switzerland said: "The Swiss people are not willing to sacrifice their freedom."
The referendum was forced on the government when pro-European campaigners gathered the required number of signatures to ensure a referendum was held. The government itself did not support the "yes to Europe" vote that would have dictated to it when membership talks should begin.
Even French-speaking Switzerland, generally considered far more pro-EU than the German-speaking part, voted "no."
Among possible reasons given for the outcome is the fact that Switzerland is economically better off right now than some of its EU neighbors, with lower inflation, unemployment, and income tax than the European averages.
Considering the historical strength of the Swiss Franc, economists point out, joining the weak Euro does not appeal to many.
"No one wants to change anything," conceded Martin Kostezer of the New European Movement Switzerland, the mostly socialist, pro-EU group that spearheaded the failed referendum initiative.
Many Swiss last year frowned on the EU campaign to isolate fellow member-state Austria over the inclusion in a coalition government of a party whose leader had expressed sympathy for some aspects of Nazi policy.
Fears that Switzerland may be forced to change its banking secrecy laws before joining the Union added to concerns.
Late last week, an EU commissioner, Chris Patten, ruffled feathers in Switzerland when he warned that the country could risk losing a series of bilateral accords reached with the EU recently if it did not take firmer action to stamp out cross-border fraud.
The Swiss government angrily rejected the criticism, and other senior EU officials tried to play down the row.
More perceived EU "interference" came last week in a French parliamentary report questioning Swiss efforts to combat money laundering.
Swiss media Monday pondered on the size of the defeat for the "yes" campaign, with many reports noting that, for once, the country wasn't split along the traditional east-west, French-German lines.
"If the failure of the initiative is not a surprise, the extent of the refusal is stupefying," reported the French-language Le Temps newspaper, under a headline "Goodbye to Europe."
"The defeat which the 'Yes to Europe' initiative suffered is one of the darkest pages in the history of the European movement in Switzerland," it said.
According to the Neue Z\'fcrcher Zeitung, the result showed that Switzerland remained highly skeptical about EU membership and citizens favored the system of direct democracy to discussions around a large table in Brussels, home to the EU's institutions.
But another paper, Blick, noted that it took Switzerland several attempts to agree to allow women to vote on the issue. Switzerland will eventually join the EU, it predicted, but it will be "a long and stony path until we get there."
Switzerland prides itself on its independence from outside interference. A militarily neutral country, it has not been involved in a foreign war since the 16th century.
Although it hosts the headquarters of United Nations agencies, Switzerland is not a member.
The concept of "direct democracy" enables citizens to hold twice-yearly votes on a range of issues of public concern.
The last time the country voted on the issue of closer ties with Europe was in 1992, when voters overwhelmingly rejected joining the European Economic Area, a first step toward eventual EU membership.
This summer, the Swiss will again vote in a referendum, this time on whether the law should be changed to allow Swiss peacekeepers to carry weapons when serving abroad.
Next year the question of U.N. membership will be put to the popular vote.