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Switzerland Warns About Quitting Schengen Area

Switzerland may be compelled to quit the Schengen area if a vote set for May 15, 2022 is successful. Switzerland’s minister of justice and police, Karin Keller-Sutter, told a conference of EU ministers this week.

In 1995, the Schengen area was established, which today covers 28 countries and permits passport-free travel throughout much of Western Europe. Since December 12, 2008, Switzerland has become a member.

Since 2009, Switzerland has been sponsoring an organization known as Frontex as a member of the zone. Frontex is the body in charge of policing the Schengen area’s borders.

The organization is quite controversial. While some argue that it reduces illegal immigration into Europe, others argue that it simply returns and prevents some asylum seekers from obtaining protection under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Accountability and supervision to ensure the agency complies with relevant laws have also been cited as concerns.

Furthermore, Frontex’s funding has been increasing. In 2020, the budget was set at 364 million euros. The budget for 2022 is 754 million euros, which is more than twice as much as the budget for 2020.

In the autumn of 2021, the Swiss government and the European Union decided to raise Frontex financing. The contribution from Switzerland is predicted to increase from CHF 24 million in 2021 to CHF 61 million in 2027.

Switzerland's minister of police and justice, Karin Keller-Sutter warns about quitting Schengen Area
Switzerland’s minister of justice and police, Karin Keller-Sutter

Switzerland hints at quitting the Schengen Area

Following the legislative vote, a group of Swiss politicians and citizens began gathering the 50,000 signatures needed to organize a referendum to overturn the decision to increase Frontex budget. The organization declared on January 20, 2022 that it had collected roughly 62,000 signatures, opening the way for a vote on the matter on May 15, 2022. Furthermore, organizers of the referendum claim they want Frontex abolished and all migrants to Europe to have unrestricted mobility.

If the vote passes, Switzerland’s participation in the zone may be jeopardized. According to Karin Keller-Sutter, a “no” vote would imply an inevitable exit. If Frontex says “no,” it is apparent that we will be forced to quit the Schengen-Dublin area.

Others in the European leaders’ meeting, according to Keller, were unaware of the Swiss vote and were taken aback by the news.

Switzerland joins Schengen Council

Switzerland is expected to join a new “Schengen Council” proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron, with the purpose of better coordinating European migrant policies.

On Wednesday and Thursday in Lille, where Swiss Justice Minister Karin Keller-Sutter was also present, Macron proposed the concept at a meeting of European Union (EU) interior ministers.

The group, which might convene for the first time in March, would serve as a forum for Schengen countries to respond promptly to emergencies like the one that occurred late last year on the EU-Belarus border, when thousands of refugees attempted to pass into Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania.

“This Council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” said Macron.

Switzerland would “naturally be part [of the council]” as a member of the Schengen travel area (although a non-member of the EU), according to Karin Keller-Sutter. Macron responded positively to her request for a Swiss role earlier this week.

Map of Schengen Area Countries
Map of Schengen Area Countries

Cooperation in security and migration needed in Schengen Area

Following the rejection of a draft framework agreement last year, ties between Switzerland and Brussels have deteriorated, with collaboration in numerous sectors — most notably science – eroding.

“If there is one area where cooperation is required,” Keller-Sutter added, “it is security and migration.” She echoed Macron’s statement that efficient border management is the price to pay for ongoing free movement within Europe, saying that protecting Schengen’s external borders is a top priority for both the EU and Switzerland.

Frontex, the EU’s external border police agency, is a natural component of this; yet, Switzerland’s continuing funding of it is up for a countrywide vote in May. Voting “no” to Frontex, according to Keller-Sutter, would mean quitting the Schengen Area.

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