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EUROPEAN UNION

EXPLAINED: What is Switzerland’s deal with the EU?

With reports suggesting some in the UK government would like Britain to seek a 'Swiss-style relationship' with the EU, we explored what the deal between Switzerland and the bloc means.

EXPLAINED: What is Switzerland's deal with the EU?
Swiss and EU flags fly side by side in Bern. Photo by Christian Wasserfallen on Pexels

British media reports have claimed that some people inside the UK government want to see post-Brexit Britain pursue a relationship with the EU along the lines of Switzerland. So what’s this partnership based on?

One way to describe Switzerland’s relationship with the EU is this: it doesn’t want to be part of the bloc, but it can’t live without it either.

“Switzerland  has a very strong sense of independence; joining the EU would impinge on its autonomy,” according to political scientist Daniel Warner, former deputy to the director of The Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

To date, Switzerland is one of only a handful of western European nations that have not joined the European Union, and yet it has strong ties with the bloc. 

In 1992, Swiss voters narrowly rejected (by 50.3 percent) the government-backed plan to join what was then the European Economic Area of 12 nations.

The main argument that swayed the voters was that the country’s unique grass-roots democracy would be undermined if political decisions affecting Switzerland were made in Brussels rather than in Bern.

That particular argument also held true in 2001, when nearly 77 percent rejected the proposal to open membership negotiations with the EU.

Sometimes, Switzerland’s refusal to join its neighbours smacks of arrogance.

“Switzerland is too rich and too stable to want to join the EU,” said Fabio Wasserfallen, a professor of European politics at the University of Bern.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why is Switzerland not part of the European Union?

However, despite its long-standing stance of neutrality and sovereignty, which fuels its opposition to joining the Union, Switzerland can’t exist without its European neighbours. And it knows it.

There are several reasons for this dependence.

One is that exports are the backbone of Swiss economy, with the EU and in particular Germany, being Switzerland’s main trading partners.

Switzerland relies on its access to the single market in other ways as well, all of which play a major part in the country’s economic prosperity. For this reason, Bern and Brussels have signed over 100 reciprocal treaties, covering not only trade, but also matters of cross-border security, research and education, agriculture, transport, environment, police cooperation, and a number of other agreements, which are outlined here.

One of the major ones is the Free Movement of Persons Agreement, which allows citizens of EU states to freely work and live in Switzerland, and vice-versa.

Another makes Switzerland part of the borderless Schengen area, making travel though Europe much easier and more convenient for Swiss citizens.

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

What concessions has Switzerland made to get access to EU’s “perks”?

The cooperation between Bern and Brussels sometimes causes discontent on both sides.

In Switzerland, some people, especially right-wing parties such as the SVP and other populist groups like the recently formed Pro Schweiz, argue that the country has no business seeking stronger ties with Europe, at the detriment of its independence.

READ MORE: ‘Pro Schweiz’: What is Switzerland’s new anti-EU organisation and what is its aim?

On the EU’s side as well, some claim that Switzerland is ‘cherry-picking’ — that is, taking advantage of its nearly unlimited access to the single market without actually being part of it, basically taking the good bits and leaving the negative ones behind.

It is true that Switzerland doesn’t have to deal with issues like centralised policies or the necessity to support poorer countries and regions within the EU

However, according to its agreement with the EU, the country does pay for the benefits it receives from its non-membership.

Take, for instance, the ‘cohesion payments’.

They are basically “entry fees” that Switzerland pays to Brussels for its access to the single market.

According to the government, “the goal of Swiss contributions to selected EU member states is to help reduce economic and social disparities… The Swiss contribution is an investment in Europe’s security, stability and prosperity. By making the contribution, Switzerland is also strengthening and deepening bilateral relations with its partner countries and the EU as a whole.”

This year, for instance, Swiss government handed over 1.1 billion francs to eight EU states as part of the latest “cohesion payment”.

The eight states set to benefit from the money are: Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Malta, Romania and Poland.

READ MORE : What are the ‘cohesion payments’ Switzerland pays to the EU?

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TRAVEL NEWS

REVEALED: Countries fear non-EU travellers face delays under new EES border checks

A number of countries in Europe's Schengen area admit they fear delays and insufficient time to test the process ahead of new, more rigorous EU border checks that will be introduced next year, a new document reveals.

REVEALED: Countries fear non-EU travellers face delays under new EES border checks

Schengen countries are tightening up security at the external borders with the introduction of a new digital system (EES) to record the entry and exit of non-EU citizens in May 2023.

The EES will enable the automatic scanning of passports replacing manual stamping by border guards. It will register the person’s name, type of the travel document, biometric data (fingerprints and facial images) and the date and place of entry and exit. The data will be kept in a centralised database on a rolling three-year basis that is re-set at each entry. 

What the EES is intended to do is increase border security, including the enforcement of the 90-day short-stay limit for tourists and visitors.

EU citizens and third-country nationals who reside in a country of the Schengen area will not be subject to such checks as long as they can prove residency in an EU country however they will still be caught up in any delays at passport control if the new system as many fear, causes longer processing times.

READ ALSO: Foreigners living in EU not covered by new EES border checks

But given its scale, the entry into operation of the system has been raising concerns on many fronts, including the readiness of the physical and digital infrastructure, and the time required for border checks, which could subsequently cause massive queues at borders.

A document on the state of preparations was distributed last week by the secretariat of the EU Council (the EU institution representing member states) and published by Statewatch, a non-profit organisation that monitors civil liberties.

The paper contains the responses from 21 countries to a questionnaire about potential impacts on passenger flows, the infrastructure put in place and the possibility of a gradual introduction of the new system over a number of months.

This is what certain the countries have responded. Responses from Denmark, Spain and Sweden do not appear in the report but the answers from other countries will be relevant for readers in those countries.

READ ALSO: What the EU’s new EES border check system means for travel

‘Double processing time’

Austria and Germany are the most vocal in warning that passport processing times will increase when the EES will become operational.

“The additional tasks resulting from the EES regulation will lead to a sharp increase in process times”, which are expected to “double compared to the current situation,” Austrian authorities say. “This will also affect the waiting times at border crossing points (in Austria, the six international airports),” the document continues.

“Furthermore, border control will become more complicated since in addition to the distinction between visa-exempt and visa-required persons, we will also have to differentiate between EES-required and EES-exempt TCN [third country nationals], as well as between registered and unregistered TCN in EES,” Austrian officials note.

Based on an analysis of passenger traffic carried out with the aviation industry, German authorities estimate that checking times will “increase significantly”.

France expects to be ready for the introduction of the EES “in terms of passenger routes, training and national systems,” but admits that “fluidity remains a concern” and “discussions are continuing… to make progress on this point”.

Italy is also “adapting the border operational processes… in order to contain the increased process time and ensure both safety and security”.

“Despite many arguments for the introduction of automated border control systems based on the need for efficiency, the document makes clear that the EES will substantially increase border crossing times,” Statewatch argues.

‘Stable service unlikely by May 2023’

The border infrastructure is also being adapted for collecting and recording the data, with several countries planning for automated checks. So what will change in practice?

France will set up self-service kiosks in airports, where third-country nationals can pre-register their biometric data and personal information before being directed to the booth for verification with the border guard. The same approach will be adopted for visitors arriving by bus, while tablet devices such as iPads will be used for the registration of car passengers at land and sea borders.

Germany also plans to install self-service kiosks at the airports to “pre-capture” biometric data before border checks. But given the little time for testing the full process, German authorities say “a stable working EES system seems to be unlikely in May 2023.”

Austria intends to install self-service kiosks at the airports of Vienna and Salzburg “in the course of 2023”. Later these will be linked to existing e-gates enabling a “fully automated border crossing”. Austrian authorities also explain that airport operators are seeking to provide more space for kiosks and queues, but works will not be completed before the system is operational.

Italy is increasing the “equipment of automated gates in all the main  airport” and plans to install, at least in the first EES phase, about 600 self-service kiosks at the airports of Rome Fiumicino, Milan Malpensa, Venice and in those with “significant volumes of extra-Schengen traffic,” such as Bergamo, Naples, Bologna and Turin.

Switzerland, which is not an EU member but is part of the Schengen area, is also installing self-service kiosks to facilitate the collection of data. Norway, instead, will have “automated camera solutions operated by the border guards”, but will consider self-service options only after the EES is in operation.

Gradual introduction?

One of the possibilities still in consideration is the gradual introduction of the new system. The European Commission has proposed a ‘progressive approach’ that would allow the creation of “incomplete” passenger files for 9 months following the EES entry into operation, and continuing passport stamping for 3 months.

According to the responses, Italy is the only country favourable to this option. For Austria and France this “could result in more confusion for border guards and travellers”. French officials also argue that a lack of biometric data will “present a risk for the security of the Schengen area”.

France suggested to mitigate with “flexibility” the EES impacts in the first months of its entry into service. In particular, France calls for the possibility to not create EES files for third-country nationals who entered the Schengen area before the system becomes operational, leaving this task to when they return later.

This would “significantly ease the pressure” on border guards “during the first three months after entry into service,” French authorities said.

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