Switzerland to join EU passport-free zone

Switzerland will join the European Union's passport-free travel zone next month under an agreement reached Thursday.

Switzerland is not a member of the 27-nation bloc, but is almost surrounded by EU states.

The EU's 27 interior ministers said Switzerland had met the necessary security standards to join the borderless zone, which already includes 24 European countries.

Swiss authorities will drop identity checks at land borders on Dec. 12 and will lift controls at airports as of March 29 next year, said French Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, who chaired Thursday's talks.

EU Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Jacques Barrot said Swiss membership in the so-called Schengen zone could be suspended next year if a Swiss referendum planned for February overturns an earlier decision to allow EU citizens in the landlocked country to live and work freely.
Swiss nationalist groups last month were able to gather enough signatures to force a referendum.

"If the result of the referendum was that the confederation could no longer apply the free movement principle, that would probably mean the presence of Switzerland in Schengen would be interrupted," Barrot said.

Schengen membership also complicates Switzerland's ties with Liechtenstein, its only non-EU neighbor. Tiny Liechtenstein has no international airports of its own and it has not yet joined the passport-free zone.

Under the agreement with the EU, Switzerland will have to put in place video surveillance and mobile border patrols along its frontier with Liechtenstein because the principality still remains out of the borderless zone.

EU members Cyprus, Britain and Ireland have opted to stay out of the borderless zone, while Romania and Bulgaria have yet to qualify. All other EU states, plus non-EU nations Norway and Iceland participate.

(πηγή: www.iht.com, 27/11/2008)

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