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Why Switzerland’s gun referendum threatens its membership of Schengen

If Swiss voters reject new gun laws in a referendum on Sunday, Switzerland could be forced to leave the Schengen Area. Here’s why.

Why Switzerland's gun referendum threatens its membership of Schengen
Photo: Depositphotos

When Brussels called on the Swiss government to amend its gun laws to make them compatible with new, tougher EU rules brought in following the 2015 Paris terror attacks, Swiss lawmakers drew up reforms that the EU has deemed sufficient. 

But the new Swiss rules prompted a fierce pushback by members of the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP), which gathered enough signatures to force a referendum on the measures. The referendum was officially called for by the Swiss Shooting Interest Group (IGS), a gun rights organization. 

How is the gun referendum linked to Schengen membership?

While Switzerland is not a member of the EU, it belongs to the visa-free Schengen area and must therefore comply with various rules applied by the bloc.

In fact, if Switzerland fails to approve the revised EU Fire Arms Directive, its membership of the area would automatically cease unless other EU states and the European Commission offer concessions to Switzerland.

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This Swiss government has warned that leaving Schengen could cost the country billions of francs and this argument seems to have persuaded many people in Switzerland. Polls indicate around two thirds of voters intend to vote in favour of tighter gun controls, with fears over the loss of Schengen membership playing a key part in their decision-making process.

Is Switzerland really likely to lose its Schengen membership?

This is a matter of some debate. Opponents of the new gun laws argue that claims from the government that Switzerland would lose its membership are just fearmongering.

They argue that under the terms of Switzerland’s existing bilateral agreements with the EU, the country is not required to adopt the new rules on weapons. In addition, they state that it is in the interests of the EU to ensure that Switzerland remains a member of the Schengen family.

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How do Swiss–EU relations currently work?

Bilateral relations between Switzerland and the EU are currently based on some 20 main agreements and around 100 secondary agreements negotiated by the two sides since Swiss voters rejected a proposal to join the European Economic Area back in 1992.

In December 2018, Switzerland and the EU agreed on a new framework for cooperation after years of negotiations. It includes a so-called “dynamic adoption approach” for EU law in Switzerland. This would see bilateral agreements updated “as quickly as possible” in line with changes to EU legislation.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about the new draft Swiss–EU deal

Switzerland is not required to automatically adopt EU law. The Swiss parliament has the right to choose whether to adopt legislation, as do the Swiss people through referendums.

What is the referendum question?

On May 19th, Swiss voters will be asked the following question:

“Do you accept the Federal Decree of 28 September 2018 approving and implementing the Exchange of Notes between Switzerland and the EU concerning the resumption of the EU Directive 2017/853 amending the EU Directive on weapons (Development of the Schengen acquis)?”

The Swiss government has warned of the consequences if voters vote 'no' in the referendum and reject the new laws.

What is at stake?

“In the event that the new provisions are rejected, cooperation between Switzerland with the other Schengen and Dublin states will automatically cease, unless the other states and the EU Commission offer concessions to Switzerland,” said the government in a statement

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This would have wide-reaching implications for Switzerland's relationship with the European Union. Switzerland's membership of the Schengen Area saw it abolish all border and passport control with the 25 member states. Should Switzerland be forced to exit the 1985 Schengen Agreement, it would mean a return to border controls at Swiss airports and major transport and frontier hubs. 

People entering the Alpine nation would suddenly need a visa, engendering a huge administrative headache for Swiss authorities. 

Guns are a mainstream asset in Switzerland country where military service is compulsory. There are more than 2.3 million small arms in circulation in Switzerland, or 27 per every 100 adults, according to the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey. 

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