SHARE
COPY LINK

EUROPEAN UNION

Free movement vote could result in ‘Swiss Brexit’

Switzerland may not be in the European Union but it could nevertheless face its own ‘Brexit’ if the Swiss people were to vote against the free movement of people.

Free movement vote could result in ‘Swiss Brexit’
Could the sun be setting on Swiss-EU bilaterals? Photo: Fabrice Coffrini
That’s the conclusion of commentators following the launch of the SVP’s new popular initiative, which wants to ask the Swiss public to decide, once and for all, if they wish to maintain the country’s current relationship with the EU or go their own way. 
 
The initiative ‘For limited immigration' proposes that Switzerland manage its immigration policy unilaterally. If accepted at referendum, the Swiss government would have one year to put an end to the country's free movement agreement with the EU, which currently allows EU citizens to work and live freely in Switzerland, and vice versa. 
 
Doing so would undoubtedly throw Swiss-EU relations into disarray, since the free movement agreement is part of a package of seven bilaterals signed in 1999 covering agriculture, research, civil aviation, transport and trade. 
 
Under the so-called guillotine clause, ending one of these seven bilaterals would put an end to them all. And the EU is unlikely to shift from this position, since it has always maintained – as it is currently impressing upon Britain – that a country cannot have access to the single market without accepting free movement.
 
To date, the Swiss public has seemed reluctant to choose one path over the other. In a 2014 referendum the public voted in favour of Switzerland taking back control of immigration, yet surveys showed that most Swiss nevertheless wanted to safeguard the country’s bilateral arrangements with the EU. 
 
And since Switzerland signed the free movement agreement in 1999 the public has several times voted in favour of the bilateral path.
 
 
But the Swiss people would be finally forced to choose should this new popular initiative go to referendum. One thing both supporters and opponents of the initiative seem to agree on is that it would certainly clarify the situation. 
 
“The potential benefit of this text is that it wants to actually end the bilateral agreements and therefore do a sort of Swiss Brexit and leave the European market,” Socialist MP Roger Nordmann told broadcaster RTS
 
Voting on the subject “will have a clarifying effect, because I don’t believe the Swiss population will want to find itself in the same situation as England is in now,” he said.
 
The initiative will “push every political body to justify what they think we should do,” agreed PLR MP Beat Walti, who said opponents of the initiative must impress upon voters that it’s not just about free movement but a whole raft of bilaterals.
 
Supporters of the proposal say accepting free movement was “a fundamental error” that hasn’t brought the economic benefits that others claim, reported Le Matin following a press conference to launch the initiative.
 
Immigration from the EU has led to a population explosion and lowered quality of life, said Lukas Reimann, president of Action for an independent Switzerland (AUNS) which has co-authored the initiative along with the Swiss People’s Party (SVP).
 
It is not acceptable that 500 million EU citizens have the right to set up home in a small country like Switzerland, added SVP president Albert Rösti.
 
Campaigners have 18 months to gather 100,000 signatures to push the popular initiative to a referendum.
For members

TRAVEL NEWS

EXPLAINED: Which Schengen area countries have border controls in place and why?

Borders within Europe's Schengen area are meant to be open but several countries have checks in place but are they legal and will they be forced to scrap them? Claudia Delpero explains the history and what's at stake.

EXPLAINED: Which Schengen area countries have border controls in place and why?

The European Court of Justice has recently said that checks introduced by Austria at the borders with Hungary and Slovenia during the refugee crisis of 2015 may not be compatible with EU law.

Austria has broken the rules of the Schengen area, where people can travel freely, by extending temporary controls beyond 6 months without a new “serious threat”.

But Austria is not the only European country having restored internal border checks for more than six months.

Which countries have controls in place and what does the EU Court decision mean for them? 

When can EU countries re-introduce border checks?

The Schengen area, taken from the name of the Luxembourgish town where the convention abolishing EU internal border controls was signed, includes 26 states: the EU countries except for Ireland, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Croatia and Romania, plus Iceland, Norway, Lichtenstein and Switzerland, which are not EU members.

The Schengen Borders Code sets the rules on when border controls are permitted. It says that checks can be temporarily restored where there is a “serious threat to public policy or internal security”, from the organisation of a major sport event to a terrorist attack such as those seen in Paris in November 2015.

However, these checks should be a “last resort” measure, should be limited to the period “strictly necessary” to respond to the threat and not last more than 6 months.

In exceptional circumstances, if the functioning of the entire Schengen area is at risk, EU governments can recommend that one or more countries reintroduce internal border controls for a maximum of two years. The state concerned can then continue to impose checks for another six months if a new threat emerges. 

Which countries keep border checks in place?

Countries reintroducing border controls have to notify the European Commission and other member states providing a reason for their decision. 

Based on the list of notifications, these countries currently have controls in place at least at some of their borders: 

Norway – until 11 November 2022 at ferry connections with Denmark, Germany and Sweden. These measures have been in place since 2015 due to terrorist threats or the arrival of people seeking international protection and have sometimes extended to all borders.

Austria – until November 2022 11th, since 2015, at land borders with Hungary and with Slovenia due to risks related to terrorism and organised crime and “the situation at the external EU borders”. 

Germany – until November 11th 2022, since November 12th 2021, at the land border with Austria “due to the situation at the external EU borders”.

Sweden – until November 11th 2022, since 2017, can concern all borders due to terrorist and public security threats and “shortcomings” at the EU external borders. 

Denmark – until November 11th 2022, since 2016, can concern all internal borders due to terrorist and organised criminality threats or migration.

France – until October 31st 2022 since 2015, due to terrorist threats and other events, including, since 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic.

Estonia – until May 21st 2022, from April 22nd 2022, at the border with Latvia “to facilitate the entry and reception of people arriving from Ukraine”.

Norway, Austria, Germany and France also said they are operating checks on non-EU citizens. 

Can Schengen rules survive?

Despite the exceptional nature of these measures, there have been continuous disruptions to the free movement of people in the Schengen area in the past 15 years. 

Since 2006, there have been 332 notifications of border controls among Schengen countries, with increasing frequency from 2015. In addition, 17 countries unilaterally restored border controls at the start of the pandemic. 

In December 2021, the Commission proposed to reform the system to ensure that border controls remain an exception rather than becoming the norm. 

According to the proposals, countries should consider alternatives to border controls, such as police cooperation and targeted checks in border regions. 

When controls are restored, governments should take measures to limit their impacts on border areas, especially on the almost 1.7 million people who live in a Schengen state but work in another, and on the internal market, especially guaranteeing the transit of “essential” goods. 

Countries could also conclude bilateral agreements among themselves for the readmission of people crossing frontiers irregularly, the Commission suggested. 

If border controls have been in place for 6 months, any notification on their extension should include a risk assessment, and if restrictions are in place for 18 months, the Commission will have to evaluate their necessity. Temporary border controls should not exceed 2 years “unless for very specific circumstances,” the Commission added. 

At a press conference on April 27th, European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said the EU Court ruling about Austria is in line with these proposals.

“What the court says is that member states have to comply with the time limit that is in the current legislation. Of course we can propose another time limit in the legislation… and the court also says that it’s necessary for member states, if they would like to prolong [the border controls] to really do the risk assessment on whether it’s really necessary… and that’s exactly what’s in our proposal on the Schengen Border Code.”

Criticism from organisations representing migrants

It is now for the European Parliament and EU Council to discuss and adopt the new rules.

A group of migration organisations, including Caritas Europe, the Danish Refugee Council, Oxfam International and the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) have raised concerns and called on the EU institutions to modify the Commission proposals.

In particular, they said, the “discretionary nature” of controls in border regions risk to “disproportionately target racialised communities” and “practically legitimise ethnic and racial profiling and expose people to institutional and police abuse.”

Research from the EU Fundamental Rights Agency in 2021, the groups noted, shows that people from an ‘ethnic minority, Muslim, or not heterosexual’ are disproportionately affected by police stops.

The organisations also criticize the definition of people crossing borders irregularly as a threat and a new procedure to “transfer people apprehended… in the vicinity of the border area” to the authorities of the country where it is assumed they came from without any individual assessment. 

The article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK.

SHOW COMMENTS