Swiss voters have overwhelmingly rejected a proposal that would have obligated the government to begin immediate negotiations to join the European Union. Nearly 77 percent of voters said no to joining the 15-member trade alliance.

The rejection was far bigger than anyone had predicted. Not one of Switzerland's 26 states voted for the proposal, not even the liberal French-speaking states.

The referendum, a citizen's initiative, was launched by a coalition that included members of the Green and socialist parties. Supporters of the initiative called their loss a brutal defeat.

But a leader of the pro-EU group, Stefan Laubli, said the rejection does not mean that Switzerland is opposed to eventual membership in the European Union.

He said, "There is quite a big part of Switzerland that does not want to join at all. But, on the other side, we decided that we should start immediately negotiations with the European Union or not. So, there are a lot of pro-Europeans in general. But, they think it is a little too fast to start negotiations. So, what we wanted, and what we had for the last couple of weeks, was a discussion on European integration."

The government says it is in favor of eventually joining the European Union. But, it opposed this referendum on the grounds that it was premature.

Swiss Foreign Minister Joseph Deiss said the Federal Council last year affirmed its intentions to adhere to the European Union. Mr. Deiss said the government had clearly outlined its objectives and said it would take all necessary measures for joining the European Union. He said the government is planning its strategy and would be ready to start membership talks by the end of the decade.

Right-wing opponents were jubilant that their arguments had won. They warned that a yes vote would put Switzerland's economy, independence, neutrality and banking secrecy in jeopardy.