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Switzerland opens its borders

By Imogen Foulkes
BBC News, Geneva

Switzerland, right in the heart of Europe, but not in the European Union, is opening its borders to EU member states. Under the Schengen Agreement, which Switzerland is joining, cross-border passport checks will be abolished.

The move is the latest in a long and complex series of bilateral agreements which the Swiss government has negotiated with Brussels, in order not to be isolated within Europe's powerful trade zone.

map

But the Swiss people have regularly indicated that they do not want their country to join the EU, so getting their agreement on something as sensitive as opening national borders was not easy.

"There was a highly controversial public debate," admits Urs Bucher, head of Switzerland's office of European Integration.

"Some people feared we would be opening our borders to criminals, and to thousands of illegal immigrants, but we are convinced this won't happen."

Increased security

In the end, the Swiss approved joining Schengen in a nationwide referendum. One factor which swayed voters was the fact that, by joining the Schengen area, Switzerland would have access to the Schengen Information System (SIS), a Europe-wide electronic database containing thousands of details of wanted or missing people, and stolen goods and vehicles.

"This is a very valuable contribution to our security," says Luzius Mader, deputy head of the Swiss justice and police department. "It will allow us to carry out police work much more effectively."

cars queue at border
The long queues at Swiss border check points are expected to disappear

In practice, what Schengen means is a much less visible presence at the borders, and more selective but intense scrutiny behind the scenes. At Switzerland's border with France in Geneva, thousands of cars can now drive straight through, but mobile border patrols can still check anything they regard as suspicious.

So, in an office just a stone's throw from the border itself, Swiss border police are already using the SIS.

"We get up to 1,000 calls a day from our colleagues in the field," explains Juergen Zumbuhl. "And with the SIS we can check the records of a person or a vehicle right across Europe."

'A tonne of jam'

Nevertheless, for most people entering or leaving Switzerland, crossing the border will be much faster.

In Geneva and Basel in particular, where tens of thousands of people live in France or Germany, but work in Switzerland, queues at the border have long been a source of irritation.

But those hoping to cross from one country to another without even noticing may be disappointed. The most heavily used borders will still have guards, now however wearing new blue Schengen uniforms, as opposed to the old Swiss green.

Border guards in uniforms
Swiss border guards will trade their green uniforms for blue ones

One reason for this is that although Switzerland is joining Schengen, it is not joining the European Customs Union. So, while systematic passport checks will be abolished, checks for illegal goods will remain.

So does that mean that an empty-handed person will go straight through, but someone with, for example, a jar of French jam, will be stopped?

"It depends how much jam," explains border police spokesman Michel Bachar. "A tonne of jam we wouldn't be very happy about."

Principality exception

Perhaps the biggest visible change is taking place at an unexpected spot: Switzerland's border with Liechtenstein.

"The principality of Liechtenstein is a special case," explains Mr Mader. "Because contrary to what was expected, Liechtenstein will not join Schengen at the same time as Switzerland, so we will have a new external border there."

"It is a very curious situation

Lorry being checked
Random control checks are still possible
," he admits. "We will be putting up new controls at a place where there has been no real border for 100 years."

In fact, Switzerland had hoped to avoid erecting a border with its tiny neighbour, and even took security chiefs from EU member states on a trip along its border with Liechtenstein in a bid to show them how peaceful it was.

But EU policy demands that Schengen area external borders be controlled, and Liechtenstein is no exception; border controls will be introduced there until the principality itself joins Schengen too.

Record ballot

In joining Schengen, Switzerland has now adopted some of the EU's most contentious policies, including the free movement of labour, the relaxation of border controls, and the Dublin agreement on asylum.

Each bilateral agreement has been painstakingly negotiated with Brussels, has been approved by parliament, and, in the case of Schengen, Dublin and the free movement of labour, has gone to a nationwide referendum for final approval.

Schengen Security System agent
The SIS is supposed to improve security

Many might think it would be easier for Switzerland to simply join the European Union, and spend its negotiating time contributing to EU policy development.

But Swiss government officials have long memories; they point out that Swiss voters rejected moves to join the EU back in 1992, and say there is no indication they have changed their minds.

"Schengen is just one more step on the bilateral path," insists Mr Bucher. "It is not a step towards EU membership."

Instead, on 8 February 2009, Swiss voters will be going to the polls for a record sixth ballot on Switzerland's relations with the EU. This time they will be asked to approve an extension of the free movement of labour to new EU members Romania and Bulgaria.

Many Swiss are uncomfortable with the prospect, fearing an influx of cheap labour. The problem is, if they say no, all the other bilateral agreements could be in jeopardy.

Map of Schengen area
Expansion phases:
1995: Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain
1997: Austria, Italy
2000: Greece
2001: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden
2007: Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia
2008: Switzerland




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