- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 5, 2005

GENEVA — Independent-minded Swiss voters gave the shaken European Union a vote of confidence yesterday, approving participation in an EU passport-free zone even though Switzerland has never joined the 25-nation bloc.

Same-sex couples also were granted more rights in the two-issue referendum, marking the first time the issue has been put to a national vote in Europe.

Signaling Swiss desire for closer integration with the EU, about 55 percent of voters, or 1.47 million people, supported joining Europe’s passport-free “Schengen” zone by 2007.

Swiss President Samuel Schmid hailed the result as backing for the coalition government’s policy of developing closer links with the rest of Europe, but he said the government would not ignore the large majority that voted against Schengen membership.

“The government sees the people’s ‘yes’ to Schengen as a confirmation of a bilateral approach to Europe,” Mr. Schmid told reporters in Switzerland’s capital, Bern.

The result goes against the prevailing mood in the European Union, reeling from recent rejections by French and Dutch voters of a proposed constitution for the bloc.

In Brussels, EU Foreign Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini welcomed the vote on behalf the European Commission.

“The ratification of these association agreements is an important step in the relations between Switzerland and the European Union,” Mrs. Ferrero-Waldner and Mr. Frattini said in a joint statement.

“On the one hand, freedom of movement will obviously be facilitated; on the other hand, the cooperation on internal security can be strengthened.”

The vote is “an important positive signal for Europe at a time when Euro-skepticism — hopefully, only temporarily — is gaining the upper hand,” German Interior Minister Otto Schily said.

The Schengen zone allows travel through all participating countries without border checks. The 15 current members are Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden.

Under Switzerland’s system of direct democracy, the people’s consent is required on any major issue, including closer integration with the rest of Europe.

Before yesterday’s vote, experts predicted that French and Dutch rejection of the EU constitution during the past week would encourage Schengen opponents, and opinion polls showed a rapid narrowing of the majority in favor of joining the zone.

The government has been in favor of joining the EU and its passport-free area, but many of Switzerland’s German speakers — who make up about two-thirds of the population — had opposed greater integration with the rest of the Continent.

When Switzerland joins Schengen in 2007, customs controls will remain in place since the country remains outside the EU.

Security measures also could be stepped up for major events such as the annual World Economic Forum in Davos and soccer’s 2008 European Championships, which Switzerland is co-hosting with Austria.

In the referendum’s other issue, a larger majority — 1.56 million people or 58 percent — were in favor of granting more rights to same-sex couples.

The vote means that starting in 2007, registered same-sex couples will receive the same tax and pension status as married couples, but they will not be allowed to adopt children or undergo fertility treatment.

It is the first national vote in Europe on such an issue, although other countries, such as Germany, have passed laws allowing registration of same-sex couples.

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