Friday, 12 December 2008

Happy 'Switzerland Joins Schengen' Day!

After so much anticipation, I rose early this morning at dawn to creep down to the fireplace and see if I had received a visit from Schengen Clause. I gasped with joy to find it was true, he'd come! The border check with Germany had disappeared!

Ok I can't really see the German border from my dad's house in Zurich (although I can see the border with the next Canton), but I did eagerly check the news this morning to see if it had indeed come to pass. I have no idea why, but the moment which countries open their borders with other countries really excites me.

At midnight CET this morning Switzerland joined the Schengen Zone, the 25-member European block that allows passport-free travel between the member states. Switzerland is not technically in the EU, but it has a series of bilateral treaties with the EU which make it in many ways a "virtual member," bound to follow EU regulation although it has no representation in the EU parliament.

Switzerland is not the first large non-EU country to join the passport-free zone. Norway and Iceland are also members, although as members of the European Economic Area they are also "virtual members" of the EU. And two EU members - Britain and Ireland - are not members of the border-free agreement.

The Swiss public approved joining Schengen in 2005, a positive sign to many in Europe that the traditionally isolationist country might be changing. The country has narrowly rejected joining the EU in a series of referendums, with the rural mountain and forest cantons opposed to the idea.

Life in Zurich

As someone who travels between the EU and Switzerland often, the Schengen entry will make my life a heck of a lot easier. I've been living here about two weeks now and so far it's been good, certainly very relaxing. It's funny how much closer to London I feel here than I did in Paris. Of course part of that may be the fact that my dad has Sky satellite TV so I spend my day watching British television, and it also may have to do with the fact that just about everyone here speaks English. My dad has lived here three years and still doesn't speak a word of German. It's terrible, but it's possible to do here.

But beyond all that, the general way of life here just feels more familiarly Anglo-Saxon I guess. One thing I thought was amazing about living in Paris was that you're only 2 hours away from London by train, and yet I can't imagine two more different cities. Paris really did feel like a different universe from London. Not that I didn't like Paris, but it is a world unto itself!

So next week I'll head to New York to spend the holidays with my extended family and friends, and return to Zurich on New Years Day. Then at that point I'll continue freelancing based from here, but at the same time I'm going to start looking for a new full-time job. Where that will be I'm not sure, I'm open to anywhere in Europe really, but I'll be specifically targeting Brussels and London.

Liechtenstein Outcome

Regular readers of my blog may be curious to know the outcome of that impasse between the EU and Liechtenstein over the tiny principality's entry into the Schengen Zone. Wedged between Switzerland and Austria, the country has since World War I been linked to Switzerland, sharing its currency, army, and customs union - and it is also not a member of the EU (though it is a member of the EEA). As Switzerland prepared to join the Schengen Zone, Brussels decided to play hardball with Liechtenstein in the wake of a banking scandal, telling the principality that it would not allow it to join unless it made its banking system more transparent (Liechtenstein is a notorious tax haven). The principality's Schengen application is still in limbo, although it looks like it will relent and open up its banks. In the mean time, however, Switzerland will be required to set up a border-check with Liechtenstein for the first time in 100 years. I've heard various reports about what this new border check across the Rhine will entail, so I'm going to take a little trip out there in January to see for myself. Maybe I'll be lucky enough to be in the unique situation of getting a Liechtenstein stamp in my passport coming from Switzerland!

One More Hurdle

By the way, there is a potential roadblock to Switzerland's smooth entry into the Schengen Zone coming up on the horizon. The federal government has decided that it needs to put a specific part of the agreement to the public again for another referendum in February. That aspect is the "free circulation" clause of the treaty, which would allow any EU citizen to enter the country whenever they want, including the new EU entrants of Bulgaria and Romania. However the EU has warned that it would be illegal for Switzerland to reject just that part of the Schengen treaty, and if the referendum were to succeed, it would invalidate Switzerland's Schengen membership.

So Switzerland's addiction to direct democracy could still foul up this Schengen deal, even after it's already been implemented.


Jacob said...

Congratulations CH!

Anonymous said...

As someone who lives in France but works in Geneva, this is excellent news for me.