Switzerland relaxes its borders
When the clock strikes midnight, Switzerland will officially join the Schengen agreement, and passports will no longer be checked at the border crossings between the confederation and the rest of Europe.
Geneva -- For the 700,000 commuters who cross the borders between European Union countries and Switzerland every day, life is set to get just a little bit easier after Thursday.
When the clock strikes midnight, Switzerland will officially join the Schengen agreement, meaning passports will no longer be checked at the border crossings between the confederation and the rest of Europe.
"Schengen means" there will be "no systematic control of the borders anymore," Michaela Rickenbacker, the chief of the Swiss border police, told local radio.
However, she admitted, most systematic checks have already been removed. People will feel the difference, but only slightly. Border checks will remain in place for custom issues.
For non-EU residents, the big difference will be that a Schengen visa will get them into Switzerland, and a Swiss visa will grant them access to the rest of Europe.
Passengers on flights between Swiss airports and other Schengen-zone destinations, however, will continue to have to show their passports until March 29, to allow for airports to implement necessary changes.
Swiss officials said they joined the agreement largely to gain access to Schengen security information, granting them better knowledge about terrorism, criminal threats and asylum seekers. The system also allows them to share their intelligence with other members.
Ironically, Switzerland will now have to put up a border crossing where it has not had one for decades, on the border with the tiny Principality of Liechtenstein.
As the principality has no airport - except for a small heliport - and is landlocked between Austria and Switzerland, most people have no way in or out of the country without going through a Schengen country.
Lichtenstein is tentatively set to join the agreement next year.
The Schengen passport-free zone was originally created by France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg in 1985 near the Luxembourg town of Schengen. It was put into practice in 1990 and expanded to cover the larger EU in 1995, except for the islands of Britain and Ireland, which remained outside the pact.
Non-EU members Norway and Iceland also joined the zone in 2001, and in 2007, nine new EU member states, mostly in Central and Eastern Europe, joined as well.
Switzerland, which is not a member of the European Union, held a referendum in 2005 wherein voters approved joining the Schengen area.
The decision to let Switzerland in was taken last month at a meeting of EU justice and interior ministers in Brussels.