Swiss face ousting from Schengen if they block border agency funds
Brussels has threatened to throw Switzerland out of the EU’s passport-free zone if it does not back paying more to the bloc’s border agency, as the country votes in a “Frontex-it” referendum.
The EU boosted Frontex numbers and staff after the 2015 migration crisis, which means an rise in Swiss payments to the agency, which polices the borders of the Schengen Zone.
Today’s referendum was triggered by an alliance of NGOs and politicians from the Social Democrats and Green Party, which accuses Frontex of building a “Fortress Europe” to keep migrants out.
The Swiss government said a No vote would put tension on already strained relations with Brussels as well as costing the landlocked non-EU country its place in the open-borders area. The rise is expected to be approved.
Brussels expects Bern to increase its €23m 2021 payment to Frontex in stages to just over €58.2m in 2027 and the EU wants to boost Frontex numbers to a standing corps of 10,000 border guards by that year.
Switzerland is expected to second 40 staff to the agency, up from six.
Ylva Johansson, the EU’s home affairs commissioner, said Schengen was not an “a-la-carte menu”.
“The consequence of voting No could be the end of the Schengen and Dublin accords for Switzerland,” she said. Dublin rules allow members to send migrants back to the first member country they arrived in.
The end of Schengen would pose a major headache for Switzerland, its large number of cross-border workers and trade with the EU members which surround the country.
Some 60pc of Swiss exports are to the EU. 1.4 million EU citizens work in Switzerland, many in the health service, and half a million Swiss live and work in the EU. The Swiss parliament voted to increase the Frontex payments last year before the Left-wing coalition collected enough signatures for a referendum.
Polls showed about 69pc of voters would be prepared to back the increased payments to Frontex, which had a total budget of just under €542 in 2021 and now has the largest budget of any EU agency.
Support has grown since the referendum was called, despite accusations that Frontex, which had a budget of just pounds €142m in 2015, was involved in illegal pushbacks of migrants.
Fabrice Leggeri quit as head of the agency last month. He reportedly felt his efforts to strengthen the bloc’s external borders had been blocked by pro-migrant politicians and NGOs.
The Swiss will also vote on moving from an opt-in to an opt-out system of organ donation and on a law to make streaming services such as Netflix support local film and TV production.
Swiss direct democracy, with regular plebiscites, has put it at loggerheads with the EU before. In 2014, voters narrowly called for quotas on EU immigrants to Switzerland, which infuriated Brussels. In 2020, voters rejected a referendum calling for the end of free movement with the EU, with nearly 62pc saying they wanted to keep it.
The EU took a tougher line with Switzerland during the years of the Brexit negotiations, when it warned the UK against “cherry-picking” the benefits of free trade with the bloc.
In 2021, the Swiss pulled out of negotiations with the EU over a new overarching treaty to replace the patchwork of individual treaties it had signed with Brussels over the years.
The “no deal” led to warnings from the European Commission that Switzerland would gradually fall out of parts of the Single Market as its rules evolved and the Swiss did not follow.
The European Commission earlier froze Swiss stock exchanges out of the Single Market in a bid to extract concessions from Bern during the talks.
Switzerland is in the Single Market, but has no say in how those rules are drafted, and has freedom of movement. It is not in the Customs Union, which means it can make its own trade deals.
©Telegraph Media Group Ltd (2022)