Thursday, 22 January 2009

What's Going on at Switzerlands Borders??

Something very strange is going on here. Back on 12 December, Switzerland joined the passport-free Schengen Zone, which enables travel between it and all of its EU neighbors without a passport check. Yet from stories I've been hearing it seems that Switzerland's borders have actually become harder to cross since it entered Schengen.

In the past two weeks two friends of mine have come to visit from Paris, both taking the direct high-speed TGV train. Both of their trains were stopped at Basel for 30 minutes while authorities came on board and checked people's passports. On the first visitor's train into Switzerland two weeks ago, the authorities adked everyone for a passport and searched everyone's luggage. The second visitor who came last week also had his train stopped. He hadn't brought his passport, and only had his French national ID. The border guard took his ID to the other end of the train car and made a phone call about it for ten minutes before eventually handing it back and continuing down the train. Last night I was talking to a German friend who lives here in Zurich and he said he encountered the same thing when driving up to Germany for Christmas. All of the cars were being stopped and passports were demanded.

Now this strikes me as rather unusual because under the precepts of the Schengen Agreement authorities at borders within the zone are actually not allowed to ask people for passports just because they are crossing the border. And before Switzerland joined the zone last month, passport checks on trains and roads leaving/entering Switzerland were sporadic and not frequent. Both me and my father have taken that TGV between Zurich and Paris many times before last month and neither of us has ever been asked for a passport (the train never stopped for thirty minutes in Basel either). The same goes for trains I've taken from Geneva into France and from Lugano into Italy.

So why has Switzerland's Schengen entry resulted in the exact opposite of what the entry was supposed to accomplish? I've been searching for answers this week. Switzerland's Schengen status is a bit different from the others because it is still a separate trade zone from the EU and therefor can still have customs checks at its borders, unlike borders within the EU. But my understanding is that the current arrangement allows them to search luggage but not to ask for travel documents. But on the other hand Swiss, French, German and Italian police all have the right to demand identification from anyone, anywhere, at any time. Does that invalidate the Schengen clause about not being allowed to demand travel documents?

A contact who works for the Cantonal government in Schaffhausen tells me he's heard that Switzerland has cracked down on its border with Germany in response to Germany doing so immediately after 12 December. He says starting on 13 December the Germans started manning every single one of their border checks with Switzerland (usually around 30 percent of these are not staffed at any given time). So in response, Switzerland started aggressively checking everyone coming the other way, and perhaps, he speculated, they've followed suit with their other borders now as well. In other words, Germany started it. That's all well and good, but when is it going to end? And is what the Swiss (and their neighbors) are doing at the borders allowed under the Schengen Agreement? I'll keep trying to get to the bottom of this.

All of the friends who have been stopped have been aware of Schengen Rules, but none of them has had the nerve to challenge the border guards on their right to ask them for a passport (it's not the type of situation you want to make trouble in!). But this weekend I might take a drive up to Germany's black forest and see if I can ask some questions to the border guards there on what their instructions are currently.

If Switzerland isn't going to follow the rules of the Schengen Agreement, one wonders what the point of them joining was.


Remo said...

This happened to me at the border also! But I didn't say anything. I was very confused.

grom said...

There's a discussion I started here which revealed that ifd you are already past the legal exact border - checks are permissible.

There's also the possibility that the financial crisis means Germany wants no extra illegal immigrants, which is currently a problem in Italy. To go from Italy to Germany it is MUCH easier to go through Switzerland than Austria or France, therefore Germany may have stepped up checks not in response to Basel and Schaffhausen, but to a reduction of checks in Ticino and borders with Italy. Lampedusa is having to deal with tons of them.

Try and see if anyone else has started a thread on this at