How Switzerland could crash out of Schengen zone in vote on EU borders

Funding for European frontier guards in question at Sunday's referendum

Skiers wearing protective face masks ride a ski lift before hitting the slopes with the Matterhorn mountain as landscape above the ski resort of Zermatt in the Swiss Alps on November 28, 2020. - In non-EU Switzerland, which has been hard-hit by the second wave of Covid-19, the authorities, ski and tourism sectors have stood united behind the decision to keep the winter season going as EU countries debate a bloc-wide ban on ski holidays to curb coronavirus infections. "In Switzerland, we can go skiing, with protection plans in place," Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset told reporters on November 26, 2020. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

Switzerland’s snowy ski slopes and idyllic Alpine scenery typically bring more than 10 million visitors a year to the landlocked nation, but its open gates could be about to slam shut if voters turn their backs on Europe’s border police on Sunday.

A vote to strip funding from European Union border agency Frontex could prove one of the most consequential of Switzerland’s many referendums, tearing a hole in the visa-free Schengen zone which the EU regards as one of its proudest achievements.

Officials in Brussels and Switzerland – which is part of Schengen but not an EU member – say the country cannot have it both ways by enjoying the benefits of open borders without paying for the security of Europe’s perimeter.

But Frontex is deeply disliked by many campaigners in Switzerland and around Europe who accuse it of complicity in human rights abuses and regard it as a symbol of hostility towards migrants and refugees.

“Switzerland could use the money to integrate refugees at home rather than turning it against refugees abroad,” said Amanuel Hailemariam, an opponent of Frontex and a member of a body representing refugees in Switzerland.

Switzerland’s possible “Frontexit” is the latest in a series of events to put to the test the romantic vision of Schengen, named after the town in Luxembourg where the open-border treaty was signed in 1985.

The migration crisis of 2015, a spate of mid-decade terrorist attacks and the coronavirus lockdowns in 2020 and 2021 all prompted countries to bring in temporary border controls, disrupting supply chains and the functioning of the EU’s internal market.

Frontex border guards are increasing in number but have attracted criticism from human rights groups. AFP

French President Emmanuel Macron, who holds the EU’s rotating presidency, has called for a complete revamp of Schengen with a special council overseeing its operation and more protection of the zone’s external border.

The EU has already moved in that direction by expanding Frontex from a co-ordinating agency in Warsaw to a standing corps patrolling land and sea borders which will have 10,000 full-time guards by 2027.

Politicians in Switzerland, which joined the Schengen zone in 2008, agreed last year to more than double funding for Frontex from 24 million francs ($24.1m) to 61m francs in the next five years.

But opponents of the growing Swiss participation had by January collected the 62,000 signatures needed to trigger a referendum under Switzerland’s system of direct democracy.

The ballot paper on Sunday will ask voters whether they approve the extra funding and the secondment of dozens of Swiss officers to Frontex, compared to only a handful at the moment.

Polls show the Yes campaign in front. But an EU official confirmed the stakes were high, telling The National that participation in Schengen “comes with rights and responsibilities” and that free travel within its borders relies on strong security at its perimeter.

They said a decision to shun Frontex is “liable to lead to the termination” of Switzerland’s association with Schengen and, in turn, its participation in the Dublin agreement on asylum seekers.

“Schengen is one of the greatest achievements of the EU and freedom of movement is cherished by citizens, business people and tourists alike,” the official said. “Frontex plays a crucial role in maintaining the integrity of the Schengen area without controls at external borders.”

Anti-Frontex campaigners gathered enough signatures to invoke one of Switzerland's frequent referendums. EPA

Swiss politicians have had a mixed relationship with Brussels in recent months, having pulled out of years-long talks on a new co-operation agreement but more recently agreed to adopt EU sanctions on Russia.

Senior figures have latched on to the danger of a Schengen exit to persuade citizens to back the Frontex package, with Switzerland’s ruling seven-member council recommending a Yes vote.

Karin Keller-Sutter, a member of the council, said leaving Schengen would imperil Swiss security because authorities would lose access to a European database on police and criminal records.

Swiss police call up that database hundreds of thousands of times per day, she said, producing about 20,000 hits a year and aiding the country’s fight against terrorism and cross-border crime.

Voters have also been warned of a threat to tourism if visitors from outside Europe have to apply for a separate visa to tag a visit to the Swiss Alps or Geneva on to a round trip through Germany, France and Italy.

“Our tourist destinations can welcome far more guests from overseas since the Schengen visa has made Switzerland part of any good European tour,” said Monika Ruehl, chairwoman of industry lobby group Economie Suisse.

Campaigners against Frontex say it is not certain that Switzerland would be booted out of Schengen, and in any case believe they are waging a battle in favour of open borders rather than against them.

Human rights groups have accused Frontex of failing to investigate abuses and the agency’s executive director Fabrice Leggeri resigned last month under pressure from EU investigators.

An official Swiss campaign group wants Frontex abolished and has left piles of life jackets in city centres and outside railway stations in a symbol of the peril faced by unauthorised migrants crossing the Mediterranean.

But there is conservative opposition to Frontex too, with MP Lukas Reimann arguing that Switzerland should not be outsourcing its own border protection to the under-fire agency.

“We cannot rely on the Greek, Bulgarian or Romanian authorities guaranteeing our security,” he said.

Updated: May 13, 2022, 6:42 AM