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Open borders still some way off for Swiss

Justice Minister Christoph Blocher met with counterparts including Germany's Wolfgang Schäuble

(Keystone)

Switzerland is still hedging its bets as to when it will join the European Union's borderless travel zone and will only decide how it wants to proceed next spring.

Swiss Justice Minister Christoph Blocher said he would prefer to wait despite the EU deciding to open the so-called Schengen zone to its ten newest members by March 2008.

EU nations agreed on Tuesday to phase out land border checks starting on December 31, 2007. Remaining airport and sea border checks will be removed by March 2008.

All the ten new members have to meet stringent border and customs security standards before they can join the Schengen visa system. A final evaluation of whether the security standards are met will be made starting mid-2007 by the EU's executive Commission.

Under the compromise plan, the ten nations would be temporarily allowed to link into the current visa data system, which will be adapted to accommodate the new
members until the new updated version is launched in June 2008.

Unlike Malta, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and five other eastern European nations that have applied for full entry into the Schengen zone, Switzerland – which is not an EU member - will not sign up yet. The divided island of Cyprus has opted to keep in place some border checks.

Blocher, who was making his first official trip to Brussels, said that his preference was to participate in the second version of the Schengen Information System (SIS II), rather than implement the temporary solution adopted on Tuesday.

He added that the government would most likely follow this path if SIS II was up and running by 2009. He believes it offers a better all-round package, including more data such as biometric details of individuals.

Glitches

SIS II has, however, been delayed by technical and administrative glitches on the EU side, which is why the temporary solution was chosen for the new member states.

They had been told earlier this year they would have to wait until 2009 because of delays in setting up a new database on stolen vehicles and police searches, aimed at boosting police cooperation in the borderless zone.

But the new members complained their citizens were being deprived of rights enjoyed by others and ministers finally agreed to let all states access the existing database.

Blocher ruled out implementing Schengen before the 2008 European football championships, to be jointly hosted by Switzerland and Austria. He said he saw no reason to drop border checks and then to re-implement them for the competition.

Swiss voters endorsed their country's participation in Schengen in 2005 despite opposition from Blocher's own rightwing People's Party. Switzerland agreed to participate in the system as part of a second series of bilateral treaties signed in 2004.

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

To justify its adhesion to Schengen, the Swiss government said that cooperation between individual partner states was no longer sufficient to combat modern forms of crime.

From the Swiss point of view, pan-European investigation cooperation based on the SIS computer network system was particularly interesting.

Schengen - and the SIS - is considered an important tool in combating cross-border crime such as smuggling as well as the trafficking of people, drugs and arms.

In pursuing a "go-it-alone" policy, Switzerland would have risked becoming a weak link in European security.

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Schengen

The 1985 Schengen Treaty aimed to create an area where individuals could travel freely from country to country, and was signed by five EU members: Belgium, Germany, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. It was subsequently adopted by most other member states.

The UK and Ireland have not removed frontier controls but participate in the 'Schengen Information System' - a huge central database open to police forces and immigration services, making it easier to track criminals.

Although most Schengen countries require citizens to carry identity cards, the removal of frontier controls on most internal EU borders has made it much easier for criminals to travel undetected into different legal jurisdictions - and to evade prosecution. This has led to significant efforts to develop co-operation between prosecutors and investigators, notably in the field of extradition.

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