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Europe

Eurosceptic Swiss Vote on Freer Rein for EU Travelers

Just days after France and Holland, two of the EU's founding nations, rejected a new EU charter, the EU-wary Swiss are voting in a weekend referendum on whether to abolish most border controls with their neighbors.

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Swiss opponents have built a Trojan horse to protest against Schengen

About 55 percent of voters in Switzerland, which has stayed out of the European Union, are ready to approve government plans to join the 15-nation Schengen policing area, according to the last opinion poll 10 days ago.

However, that lead had melted by five to seven points compared to polls about a month earlier, prompting worries about the influence of the wave of public scepticism about the EU just across the border.

Referedum in Frankreich über die EU-Verfassung: Jugendliche werben für ein Ja

Youths wave Euopean flags and hold placards reading "Yes" in support of the EU constitution during a rally in front of Paris' city hall, Thursday, May 26, 2005.

"An emotional reaction is always possible," said Yves Christen, head of the Swiss pro-EU movement, NOMES. Polling booths were already open in some parts of the country Friday while most postal ballots -- a large proportion of votes many areas -- had already been cast. The result is due on Sunday.

Swiss hostile to closer EU ties

Christen was counting on a 51 to 55 percent "yes" vote in a country that traditionally has shown suspicion if not outright hostility to closer ties with the EU in recent decades. Swiss voters, who have the final say on key legislation several times a year, narrowly rejected a broad economic agreement with Brussels in 1992 after a heated campaign.

Another motion by pro-EU campaigners in 2001 calling for EU membership talks was swept aside by 77 percent of voters. Instead, the Swiss have approved a host of specialized accords with the EU to ease trade, labor, educational and technical ties in recent years.

Fear of loss of sovereignty

Bildgalerie 50 Jahre Römische Verträge Bild 12 b Schengener Abkommen

The entry to the town of Schengen in Luxembourg.

The Schengen area, named after a small town in Luxembourg where the treaty was signed in 1985, now includes 13 EU states, as well as Iceland and Norway.

The agreement abolishes systematic identity checks on travelers within the area and provides for a common visa in return for stronger controls on the area's outer fringe, as well as closer cooperation between police forces.

Schengen's Swiss opponents say that amounts to giving up a chunk of their sovereignty to Brussels. "We don't trust an organization that can't manage to resolve its enormous internal problems," said Hans Fehr, a parliamentarian for the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP) and head of an isolationist lobby group, the Association for a Neutral and Independent Switzerland (AUNS).

With the vote also covering membership of the EU's Dublin agreement on handling asylum seekers, lurid anti-Schengen campaign leaflets have raised fears of rising crime and job losses to illicit immigrant labor.

With the exception of the SVP, all the major political parties are supporting the step into Schengen, which has already been approved by parliament.

"The SVP is preying on people's fears," said Didier Berberat, a Socialist Party MP. While access to Schengen's computerized crime database is prized by most police unions in Switzerland, it is loathed by Swiss left-wingers who oppose the step into the area.

"No would mean durable isolation"

For many Swiss living near Austria, France, Germany and Italy, the outcome will make little difference.

Schengener Abkommen, Grenzkontrolle, Grenzpolizei, Grenze

Customs checks on imports and shopping baskets will remain, while many smaller borders posts have already been deserted and given way to random checks.

Pro-Europeans are eyeing Sunday's result as a guide to the climate in Switzerland before another referendum in September.

Swiss voters are due to give their verdict on the extension of an agreement on the free movement of labor to the EU's 10 new member states, at the very moment when political debate in western Europe is beset by fears about cheaper competition from the east.

"If the 'yes' (to Schengen) wins, it will be encouraging for the referendum on free movement. But a 'no' in September would be a minor disaster: it would mean durable isolation for Switzerland," Christen said.

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