Switzerland Opens Its Borders to Europe Today
At midnight CET this morning Switzerland joined the Schengen Zone, a 25-member European block that allows passport-free travel between the member states. Switzerland is not technically in the EU, but it has a series of bilateral treaties with the EU which make it effectively a "virtual member," bound to follow EU regulation although it has no representation in the EU parliament.
Switzerland is not the first large non-EU country to join the passport-free zone. Norway and Iceland are also members, although as members of the European Economic Area they are also "virtual members" of the EU.
Land borders with France, Germany, Italy and Austria have been scrapped as of today, and airport passport checks for flights from Schengen countries will be phased out over the next three months. However a referendum due to be held in February could put this in jeapordy if the Swiss public rejects the "free circulation" clause of the treaty. However the EU has warned that such a piecemeal rejection would be illegal and invalidate Switzerland's Schengen membership.
The entry has created a bit of a historical curiosity, as the neighboring principality of Liechtenstein is not entering the zone at this time and will have to set up a border with Switzerland for the first time in 100 years.
Wedged between Switzerland and Austria, the country has since World War I been linked to Switzerland, sharing its currency, army, and customs union - and it is also not a member of the EU (though it is a member of the EEA). As Switzerland prepared to join the Schengen Zone, Brussels decided to play hardball with Liechtenstein in the wake of a banking scandal, telling the principality that it would not allow it to join unless it made its banking system more transparent (Liechtenstein is a notorious tax haven). The principality's Schengen application is still in limbo, although it looks like it will relent and open up its banks. In the mean time, however, Switzerland will be required to set up a border-check with Liechtenstein.
Passport checks are now abolished for all travellers entering the country by road, but air passengers will have to wait until March 29 next year before they can benefit from the new rules.
The Schengen agreement, named after the town in Luxembourg where it was signed in 1985, now allows for passport-free travel between 25 countries after Swiss citizens voted in favour of joining the Schengen area in a 2005 referendum.
At the exit of northern Switzerland's Zurzach forest bordering Germany, a Swiss mobile patrol team geared up for the change ahead of the transition at midnight.
One of the guards, Corporal Heinz Meister, said he was stopping vehicles only to ask about any goods being carried and not checking identity papers.