Opening the door to the EU? Swiss citizens will be facing some important issues—the Schengen/Dublin agreement and so-called Partnership Law—when they step up to the ballot box on June 5 to cast their vote in the first national referendum of 2005

Schengen/Dublin: opening the door to the EU? Swiss citizens will be facing some important issues—the Schengen/Dublin agreement and so-called Partnership Law—when they step up to the ballot box on June 5 to cast their vote in the first national referendum of 2005

Robert Anderson

In an unprecedented show of solidarity in the run-up to the June 5 referendum, no fewer than four Federal Councillors, representing the nation’s four dominant political parties, held a news conference touting the numerous advantages of saying yes to the Schengen/Dublin agreement. The Federal Council believes that joining the Schengen accord will enhance the country’s security, while signing the Dublin pact should help case the growing asylum burden.

History of the Schengen Accord

In 1957, six European countries outside Switzerland founded the European Economic Community (EEC), thereby’ creating a European domestic market in which persons, goods and services, and capital could move freely. In order for people and goods to really move unimpeded, the member states decided to mutually abolish any border controls of persons at the internal frontiers, thus permitting the tree movement of persons between EU member states.

In addition, the 1990 Schengen agreement introduced several assists:

* extensive measures to enhance security’, beefing up controls at EU external borders:

* a common policy regarding short-term visas and pan-European coordination of asylum proceedings;

* improved cross-border police cooperation, particularly via the exchange of information on wanted or undesirable persons;

* and improved cooperation in the area of criminal justice.

With the introduction of a common currency (euro) in 2002, the goal of a unified economic community was essentially realised. This process proceeded slowly at first, with Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Germany and France signing an agreement in the wine-growing village of Schengen in Luxembourg Hence, the Schengen Accord was born.

Welcome to the SIS

One of the burning issues on the minds of Swiss citizens is security–especially if border controls should be eased at some point. From Switzerland’s perspective, pan-European cooperation in investigations–based on the state-of-the-art computer network system SIS (or Schengen Information System)–is particularly lacking at present.

Schengen and the SIS are important tools in combating cross-border crime such as smuggling or trafficking of people, drugs and weapons–and that view is shared by the associations of Swiss police officers and Swiss chief criminal police officers, as well as the border guard corps and directors of the cantonal police and justice departments.

SIS is a common database that uses a computerised system to post alerts regarding persons or property at the disposal of its members. More than ten million people are registered in the system–including individuals wanted for extradition, or against whom a European arrest warrant has been issued, third-country nationals who represent a threat to public order or who have disappeared, and minors who have run away or been abducted. Moreover, SIS operates very efficiently, with an inquiry response time of just a few seconds. The system has been in place since 1995. In order to meet the needs of EU expansion to 25 countries, a new and improved SIS II is being developed and should he implemented by 2007.

The implications

According to the Federal Council, little will change for Switzerland if it enters into the Schengen agreement with respect to its prevailing security measures. Border controls will be retained and should be more effective with access to SIS. Border guards will stay on watch, and controls of goods will continue.

Checks can also be expected on people suspected of carrying drugs or illegal goods, though systematic random checks are not permitted. Switzerland is already deploying 40 per cent of its border guards on a mobile basis in the area close to the border. Only 1.0 to 3.0 per cent of the 700,000 people who cross into Switzerland daily are thoroughly checked.

Under the Dublin agreement, authorities would be able to refuse to consider an asylum request if a person has handed in a similar application in another country.

To be or not to be

Should Swiss voters give thumbs up to the Schengen/Dublin agreement. it would signal greater willingness on the part of the people to move closer to the European Union, without having to actually join the club of nations. A “Yes” to Schengen/Dublin would give the country more advantages, but allow it to retain its aloofness with respect to its views and interests in other areas. A “No” to the proposal would constitute yet another setback for the federal government and for further bilateral integration with the EU.

Furthermore, if Switzerland decides to go it alone, the country risks becoming a weak point in European-wide security because it has no access to current EU investigation data. Without relevant information, even the best controls are limited in what they can achieve. And although Switzerland ties in the heart of Europe, in some ways it continues to be an island in a sea of change. Ultimately, the Swiss citizenry will decide whether to open the door, just a little more, to the European Union.

Same-sex partnerships

Swiss voters will also be asked on June 5 to decide on a new law governing same-sex partnerships. Couples of the same gender living in Switzerland are currently subject to various disadvantages in terms of rights. The new Partnership Law would improve the legal position of these couples.

For example, the new statute would allow same-sex couples to register their partnership with the local registry office, thereby guaranteeing their civil rights. These individuals would enjoy the same rights as married couples with regard to tax and inheritance laws, as well as social security and occupational insurance. On the other hand, the new partnership statute would not permit two men or two women to legally adopt a child.

Opponents of the new law say that it would endanger the sanctity, of marriage and family. Moreover, critics say a new statute would be superfluous since existing laws already govern same-gender relationships sufficiently and equitably without discrimination. The issue of same-gender marriage has become a hot topic in some countries, particularly in the USA where social, moral and legal aspects have come under intense scrutiny. In Switzerland, most political pundits say that the new Partnership Law has little chance of passing into legislation in a country where politics and morals sometimes make strange bedfellows.

Next Month: Referendum Result

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