Swiss border guards primed travellers yesterday for the end of systematic border controls as the country joins Europe’s continent-wide zone of open frontiers.
Switzerland’s accession to the borderless travel zone today will close a gap at the heart of a 24-nation area that stretches from the Arctic Ocean to the Mediterranean.
The move will allow travellers to freely cross Switzerland’s land borders from France, Germany, Italy or Austria, all of whom have implemented the so-called Schengen agreement.
Airport checks on planes arriving from Schengen countries will be dropped from March 29 next year. The agreement is named after a small town in Luxembourg where it was first signed in 1985.
At Geneva’s busy Bardonnex checkpoint, border guards handed out 40,000 leaflets to commuters streaming across from neighbouring France.
One of them, truck driver Gaetan Grimand, said border controls had already improved significantly since Switzerland started preparing for the transition to frontier-less travel.
The Swiss, who are not members of the 27-nation European Union, will keep their strict customs restrictions, but identity checks have already become the exception rather than the rule in recent months.
“It works well, we don’t have any problems,” said Grimand.
The biggest change will be for some non-European nationals living in Switzerland who previously needed a visa to travel to Schengen countries, a requirement that will now be dropped.
“If you’re Bolivian with permanent residency in Switzerland, for example, you can now go to France for up to three months without applying for a visa,” said Michel Bachar, spokesman for Geneva’s border guard corps.
Likewise, tourists from countries such as China need only apply for one visa if they are planning a trip to France and Italy with a stopover in Switzerland.
US citizens will be unaffected as they were able to travel visa-free inside the Schengen area already.
The second major change involves increased cooperation between law enforcement agencies throughout the borderless zone.
Since August Switzerland has had access to the Schengen Information System, a vast database of wanted criminals and stolen goods that has already flagged up 2,000 alerts at Swiss borders.
“Several weeks ago we caught a couple wanted for kidnapping in Belgium,” said Bachar.
“Schengen is a formidable machine.”
The whole agreement could be put on hold again next year if Swiss nationalists succeed in overturning an agreement between Bern and Brussels that allows EU citizens to live and work freely in Switzerland. A referendum on the issue is planned for February.
One of the quirks of the Schengen agreement is that for the first time in 84 years the Swiss will have to start patrolling their border with Liechtenstein.
The tiny principality, wedged between Switzerland and Austria and with a population of only 35,000, is expected to join the borderless zone at the end of 2009.
Until then, the 1-kilometre border will be monitored around the clock by closed-circuit television and mobile patrols, an effort that border guard chief Damian Curschellas says is unlikely to net many criminals or illegal immigrants.
Because Liechtenstein has no airport, the only way to get there without passing through a Schengen country first would be to parachute out of a plane, said Curschellas.