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Why referendum on guns threatens Switzerland's membership of Schengen

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Why referendum on guns threatens Switzerland's membership of Schengen
Photo: Bennian/Depositphotos
12:23 CEST+02:00
If next month's referendum on gun laws in Switzerland yields a 'no' result, Switzerland could be forced to leave the Schengen Area. Here is why.

When Brussels called on the Swiss government to amend its gun laws to make them compatible with EU restrictions tightened following the 2015 Paris attacks, Swiss lawmakers approved reforms that the EU has deemed sufficient. 

But that prompted a fierce pushback by members of the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP), which gathered enough signatures to force a referendum on the measures on May 19th. The referendum was officially called for by the Swiss Shooting Interest Group (IGS), a gun lobby. 

How is the gun referendum linked to Schengen membership?

While Switzerland is not a member of the EU, it belongs to the visa-free Schengen travel region and must therefore comply with various rules applied by the bloc.

"The EU directive amounts to disarming Swiss households," SVP lawmaker Werner Salzmann was quoted as saying by public broadcaster RTS.

The Swiss government has countered that if voters reject the recently-passed Swiss government's Weapons Directive, collaboration with the EU, and membership of the Schengen Area, would automatically cease, barring the EU Council and Commission allowing for an exception.

Bilateral relations between Switzerland and the EU are currently based on some 20 main agreements and around 100 secondary agreements negotiated by the two sides since Swiss voters rejected a proposal to join the European Economic Area back in 1992.

In December 2018, Switzerland and the EU agreed on a new framework for cooperation after years of negotiations. It includes a so-called “dynamic adoption approach” for EU law in Switzerland. This would see bilateral agreements updated “as quickly as possible” in line with changes to EU legislation.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about the new draft Swiss–EU deal

Switzerland is not required to automatically adopt EU law. The Swiss parliament has the right to choose whether to adopt legislation, as do the Swiss people through referendums.

What is the referendum about?

On May 19th, Swiss voters will be asked the following question:

"Do you accept the Federal Decree of 28 September 2018 approving and implementing the Exchange of Notes between Switzerland and the EU concerning the resumption of the EU Directive 2017/853 amending the EU Directive on weapons (Development of the Schengen acquis)?"

The Swiss government has warned of the consequences if voters vote 'no' in the referendum and reject the new laws.

What is at stake?

"In the event that the new provisions are rejected, cooperation between Switzerland with the other Schengen and Dublin states will automatically cease, unless the other states and the EU Commission offer concessions to Switzerland," said the government in a statement

READ ALSO: How Switzerland's direct democracy system works

This would have wide-reaching implications for Switzerland's relationship with the European Union. Switzerland's membership of the Schengen Area saw it abolish all border and passport control with the 25 member states. Should Switzerland be forced to exit the 1985 Schengen Agreement, it would mean a return to border controls at Swiss airports and major transport and frontier hubs. 

Switzerland will lose several billion francs a year if it reintroduces controls in daily border traffic and at airports. People entering the Alpine nation would suddenly need a visa, engendering a huge administrative headache for Swiss authorities. 

Guns are a mainstream asset in Switzerland country where military service is compulsory. There are more than 2.3 million small arms in circulation in Switzerland, or 27 per every 100 adults, according to the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey. 

READ MORE: Swiss support for gun ownership faces crucial test

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