Brussels has threatened to throw Switzerland out of the EU’s passport-free zone if it does not back paying more to the bloc's border agency, as the country prepares to vote in a “Frontex-it” referendum on Sunday.
The EU decided to boost Frontex numbers and staff after the 2015 migration crisis, which means an increase in Swiss payments to the agency, which polices the borders of the Schengen Zone.
A referendum on whether to pay the increased payments was triggered by an alliance of NGOs and politicians from the Social Democrats and Green Party, which accuses Frontex of building a brutal “Fortress Europe” to keep migrants out.
The Swiss government said a No vote would put tension on already strained relations with Brussels as well as costing the landlocked non-EU country its place in the open-borders area. The rise is expected to be approved.
Brussels expects Bern to increase its £19.5m 2021 payment to Frontex in stages to just over £49.5m in 2027 and the EU wants to boost Frontex numbers to a standing corps of 10,000 border guards by that year. Switzerland is expected to second 40 staff to the agency, up from six.
Ahead of the vote, Ylva Johansson, the EU’s home affairs commissioner, said Schengen was not an “à-la-carte menu”.
“The consequence [of voting No] could be the end of the Schengen and Dublin accords for Switzerland,” she said. Dublin rules allow members to send migrants back to the first member country they arrived in.
The end of Schengen would pose a major headache for Switzerland, its large number of cross-border workers and trade with the EU members which surround the country.
Sixty per cent of Swiss exports are to the EU. Around 1.4million EU citizens work in Switzerland, many in the health service, while half a million Swiss live and work in the EU.
The Swiss parliament voted to increase the Frontex payments last year before the Left-wing coalition collected enough signatures for a referendum.
Polls showed about 69 per cent of voters would be prepared to back the increased payments to Frontex, which had a total budget of just under £461m in 2021 and now has the largest budget of any EU agency.
Support has increased since the referendum was called, despite accusations that Frontex, which had a budget of just £120.5m during 2015, was involved in illegal pushbacks of migrants.
Fabrice Leggeri quit as the head of the agency at the end of April. He reportedly felt his efforts to strengthen the bloc’s external borders had been torpedoed by pro-migrant politicians and NGOs.
The Swiss will also vote in referendums on moving from an opt-in to an opt-out system of organ donation and on a law to make streaming services such as Netflix support local film and TV production on Sunday.
The Swiss system of direct democracy, with regular plebiscites, has put it at loggerheads with the EU before. In 2014, voters narrowly called for quotas on EU immigrants to Switzerland, which infuriated Brussels.
In 2020, voters rejected a referendum calling for the end of free movement with the EU, with nearly 62 per cent saying they wanted to keep it.
The EU took a tougher line with Switzerland during the years of the Brexit negotiations, when it warned the UK against “cherry-picking” the benefits of free trade with the bloc.
In 2021, the Swiss pulled out of negotiations with the EU over a new overarching treaty to replace the patchwork of individual treaties it had signed with Brussels over the years.
The “no deal” led to warnings from the European Commission that Switzerland would gradually fall out of parts of the Single Market as its rules evolved and the Swiss did not follow.
The European Commission earlier froze Swiss stock exchanges out of the Single Market in a bid to extract concessions from Bern during the talks.
Switzerland is a member of the EU’s Single Market, although it has no say in how those rules are drafted, and has freedom of movement. It is not a member of the EU’s Customs Union, which means it can make its own free trade deals.