Schengen, travel and migration: What would leaving Frontex mean for Switzerland?

The Swiss vote Sunday on whether to boost their participation in the European border agency Frontex, amid fears a "no" could ultimately push Switzerland out of the Schengen open-borders area. Here's what you need to know.

Two people on a Norwegian Frontex boat near the Greek island of Lesbos. Photo: STR / AFP
Two people on a Norwegian Frontex boat near the Greek island of Lesbos. Photo: STR / AFP

Switzerland’s government and parliament have already decided the wealthy Alpine nation, which is not in the European Union but is part of Schengen, should participate in the agency’s planned expansion.

But opponents have slammed the decision and forced the issue to a referendum under Switzerland’s famous direct democracy system.

Opinion polls indicate Swiss voters back the expansion, with the latest survey showing 69 percent in favour.

Here is an overview of what is at stake:

The reform 

Frontex was created in 2004 to patrol the Schengen area’s external borders, fight cross-border crime and manage migratory flows.

READ MORE: How Switzerland’s direct democracy system works 

The European parliament decided to strengthen the agency in the wake of the 2015 migrant crisis. It voted in 2019 that over the next eight years, Frontex should be equipped with a permanent contingent of 10,000 border guards and coast guards.

Switzerland has been closely cooperating with the EU on security and asylum since 2008, and participating in Frontex since 2011.

The landlocked country in the heart of Europe has cooperated on joint flights coordinated by the agency to send back migrants and reject asylum seekers.

The referendum

According to the plan, Switzerland should gradually increase its contribution from six to 40 full-time positions at the agency by 2027.

It should also nearly triple its financial contribution to Frontex to 61 million Swiss francs ($62 million, 58 million euros) annually, up from 24 million francs in 2021.

But the No Frontex committee, made up of various migrant support organisations and with backing from left-leaning political parties, opposed the move and collected enough signatures to force a referendum.

Opponents insist Switzerland should not take part in “human rights violations”, pointing to frequent accusations against Frontex of illegally returning migrants across EU borders, or of turning a blind eye when national authorities themselves carry out such “pushbacks”.

Switzerland’s political right meanwhile fully backs the expansion, including the populist right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which frequently campaigns against any agreements between Switzerland and the EU.

But there are splits on the issue within Switzerland’s largest party, with some SVP members calling for a “no” vote in the hope that the country will leave Frontex and regain “autonomous control” of its borders.

Frontex: How Switzerland’s ‘border vote’ on May 15th could impact travel

Automatic exclusion? 

The government has warned if voters reject the expansion, Switzerland risks automatic exclusion from the Schengen area.

To avoid getting kicked out, a committee consisting of Swiss representatives, the European Commission and EU member states would need to reach a unanimous agreement within 90 days.

“It is too early to speculate on the result of the vote,” a Commission spokeswoman in Brussels told AFP. According to the government, the consequences of a Swiss exit from Schengen “would be felt daily, including through restrictions on the freedom to travel, and would lead to increased costs across the economy”.

“This cooperation is necessary, and it is beneficial for Switzerland,” Swiss Justice Minister Karin Keller-Sutter said.

What else is at stake on May 15th?

Sunday, May 15th, sees the latest round of Swiss referenda. 

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What’s at stake in Switzerland’s May referendums?

On a federal level, three questions are up for consideration: Netflix and streaming, organ donation rules and Frontex. More information on these votes are available at the following links. 

READ MORE: What is the ‘Netflix vote’ and how could it change TV in Switzerland?

EXPLAINED: What Switzerland’s ‘organ donation’ vote means for you

Frontex: How Switzerland’s ‘border vote’ on May 15th could impact travel

There are also dozens of referendum questions being asked at a cantonal level all across the country. 

In Zurich, voters will go to the polls to decide on several questions. 

Perhaps the most relevant for Local readers is the referendum on improving the naturalisation process, including making the system uniform across each of the canton’s 162 municipalities. 

Detailed information is available at the following link. 

EXPLAINED: How Zurich wants to make naturalisation easier

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Swiss head towards popular vote on US fighter jets purchase

A Swiss alliance seeking to block the purchase of F-35A fighter jets handed over enough signatures to the authorities on Tuesday to force a popular vote on the issue.

Swiss head towards popular vote on US fighter jets purchase

The left-leaning “Stop-F-35” alliance handed over the 100,000 signatures required under Switzerland’s direct democracy system to take any subject to a vote.

Once authorities have verified the signatures, the government will be required to set a date for a popular vote.

“This initiative is only targeting the type of plane,” the alliance stressed in a statement, adding that if Switzerland chooses another fighter jet, “the initiative will be withdrawn.”

The Swiss government agreed in June last year to buy 36 F-35As from US manufacturer Lockheed Martin.

The purchase followed the narrow referendum approval in September 2020 for the military to spend six billion Swiss francs to acquire a new

The F-35A combat aircraft — already used by the US Air Force and several European countries — was chosen ahead of the Airbus Eurofighter, the F/A-18 Super Hornet by Boeing, and French firm Dassault’s Rafale.

The government said the plane was the best, but two Swiss parliamentary committees launched an investigation into why the model was chosen after a series of technical problems reported with the plane in the United States.

They also questioned the high cost of the planes.

The “Stop-F-35” alliance was formed to try to force the issue to a fresh popular vote.

But despite the concerns, the government announced in May that it wanted to speed up the purchase process, with the US offer expiring at the end of March 2023, raising fears that Bern would not wait for a popular vote on the matter.

“The government and parliament must now do everything possible to enable a popular vote and an urgent and necessary public debate about the largest military equipment contract in Swiss history,” the alliance said on its website.