More than half a million foreigners living in Switzerland Union are set to benefit from a European Union decision to simplify the Schengen visa system.This content was published on April 7, 2006 - 07:41
The EU parliament in Strasbourg has voted to recognise Swiss residence permits, meaning that non-EU residents no longer need a special visa if they travel through a Schengen country.
EU parliamentarians voted by overwhelming majority on Thursday to stop the practice of transit visas for foreign Swiss residents.
At present, a Turkish or Serbian family wanting to travel home for the holidays by road would have to go though Austria or Italy, both Schengen countries.
This means a special transit visa has to be obtained from the relevant consulate or embassy.
Under the new rules, those with a B or C Swiss resident permit will be exempt from needing a visa. Permission to cross Schengen countries will be granted for five days.
There are currently 15 members of Schengen. All except Iceland and Norway are in the EU.
The move is intended as a temporary measure until Switzerland formally joins the Schengen accord, which is expected to happen in 2008 at the earliest. Voters endorsed joining the agreement last June.
The accord means that Switzerland will abandon systematic identity checks on its borders. In return, the country will gain access to a Europe-wide electronic crime database.
Thursday's decision still needs the approval of the EU's Council of Ministers before it can enter into force, which is expected to be a formality.
"We are confident that the regulation will already apply before the next summer holidays," said Nikola Donig, spokesman for the Austrian EU presidency.
As a neighbour of Switzerland, Austria is directly concerned by the move as its diplomatic representations are often overwhelmed by requests, say observers.
The reaction in Switzerland was also positive. "We are relieved and happy about the EU parliament's decision," said Vania Alleva from the Unia trade union.
The union has been long fighting for the lifting of the visa requirement as many of its foreign workers are directly affected.
The Forum for the Integration of Migrants also welcomed the vote to end a situation which it had in the past called "unsustainable".
According to the Unia, more than 700,000 people could be affected by the visa decision.
94% of visas handed out in Switzerland are transit visas.
More than 700,000 foreigners in Switzerland come from non-EU countries.
Currently they may not cross Schengen countries to visit their homelands without a special visa.
The lifting of the visa requirement is expected to be in place before the summer holidays.